It’s a case of art vs. progress, or at least what some see as progress, in the ongoing clash over the proposed construction of two high-rise apartment buildings in the space occupied by the 5 Pointz open-air art exhibit in Long Island City, a hot topic that comprised the majority of the June 6 Community Board 2 meeting.
The complex, an artists’ haven featuring one of the world’s most celebrated collections of legal graffiti, is located on the block between Davis and Crain Sreets, with frontage on Jackson Avenue. It is owned by the Wolkoff family, which hopes to see the demolition begin by the end of the year.
At the conclusion of a nearly two-hour-long public meeting, during which some two dozen individuals spoke on the issue, the board, on recommendation of its Land Use Committee, voted unanimously, with one abstention, against the proposal.
The speakers, who came from the local community and places as far away as Stamford, Conn., were overwhelmingly in favor of sparing the graffiti mecca, an attraction that has been drawing visitors from near and far for over a decade and also contains approximately 200 artists’ studios, rented at below-market prices.
Samuel Sellers, an educator and hip-hop artist who goes by Rabbi Darkside, and is known for using self-created rap songs to help his students meet city testing standards, recited a poem to express his disapproval of the proposal. “Sometimes the greatest progress is found in preservation,” the poem concluded.
Echoing the sentiment was Andy Sydor, who works as a tour guide, primarily in Manhattan. “It’s hard to get people out here,” he said. “5 Pointz actually draws people out here. They don’t know it’s in Queens. A lot of people sell Queens short. We have to preserve these gifts. Its potential has not even begun.”
He doesn’t see the need for more apartment buildings in the neighborhood, saying, “We’ve got other towers here. We’re still waiting for the crowds to the Citi Corp. building. It’s not an attractant.”
The Wolkoffs seek to build more than 1,000 units of housing in two towers that would rise from the property, and would have to provide 20,000 square feet of public space if given the special permit required for their plan. They say they could build 628 units as of right.
But speaker after speaker wanted to keep the status quo.
One, Christine Whittaker, broke down in tears as she talked about the inspiration 5 Pointz has for local children. “The soul of New York is the arts. If you take this building down, it’s another building gone from the cultural dialogue of New York City,” she said.
English teacher Peter Burkhart said, “My students flock to that place to see the artists, and there’s no charge.”
Graffiti artist Lois Stavsky said the art complex “instills tremendous pride in young people.” Speaking of artists from around the world, she said, “Their dream is to paint at 5 Pointz. There is no alternative to 5 Pointz.”
Choreographer Rebekah Kennedy aimed her barbs squarely at the Wolkoffs’ G&M Realty, which came under scrutiny throughout the evening, asking, “Can we trust this developer? How is it possible to entrust this company with their proposal?”
Longtime LIC resident Diane Hendry said of the firm, “They’re sitting on one of the best assets they have.”
Of the proposal, she said, “We know we’re not going to stop it.” She offered an alternative plan that would see “a world-wide museum and artists’ studios” on the lower levels and luxury housing above. “Then everyone wins,” she said.
Hip-hop educator and playwright Brian Kushner, aka Dyalekt, chastised the developers for their lack of support for the community. “We all have emotional outbursts,” he said, suggesting that the availability of graffiti space turns young people away from acts of vandalism and other crimes.
Some speakers turned dramatic during their time at the microphone. One drew a comparison between the artwork on display at 5 Pointz and the Mona Lisa, holding up a reproduction of the famed painting before ripping it in half to demonstrate his hostility toward the proposal.
Another donned a pair of gloves with bright red fingertips and said, “You don’t want 5 Pointz blood on your hands.”
The first open dissention came from LIC resident Gino Amoroso, who refused to disclose the name of the local business he said he owns. He made a vague reference to “other issues at hand that have not been disclosed” and said he sees 5 Pointz as “promoting vandalism throughout the community.”
He said the potential residents in the planned buildings “could ultimately improve my bottom line.” He held up several sheets of paper on which he claimed were 2,000 signatures supporting his position.
His lone expressed backing came from area resident Donna Pileggi, who said, “I witness activity that is very suspicious” in the 5 Pointz area. “I personally believe it should come down.”
The board’s vote followed the recommendation of the Land Use Committee, whose chairwoman, Lisa Deller, used terms such as “token gesture” and “insufficient tradeoff” to describe the committee’s displeasure with the overall proposal.
She said the committee had questions about several issues, including how much affordable housing the new buildings would provide, how some of the retail space would be utilized, the amount of open space that would be included, the lack of sufficient parking spaces and the limited number of artists’ studios, only five, that would be made available.
Just before the vote was taken, Stephen Cooper, the board’s first vice chairman, suggested that, while the proposal “fails to address the impact on the community,” there is nothing the board could actually do to prevent the building from coming down, since it works in a purely advisory capacity.