In a conversation with the Queens Chronicle’s editorial staff this month, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) focused on the rapid development of Long Island City and the need for more schools as major issues facing his district now and in the future.
The councilman, who worked as the chief external affairs officer for the Queens Public Library for 10 years before getting elected to the City Council in 2009, brought up the new library slated for Hunter’s Point as a significant achievement not just of his administration but those prior.
He said he was happy to be the person “carrying the ball over the finish line” on the project. He expected a groundbreaking for the library, located on the western edge of the Queens West development, next to Gantry Plaza State Park, in the next month or so.
“This is an addition, not a replacement, which makes it even more exciting,” Van Bramer said, emphasizing that no libraries were slated for closure in the area.
The library has been “in the works for over a decade,” the councilman noted, and with a projected cost of $26 million, has been designed by famed architect Steven Holl.
“It’s iconic, really a landmark,” Van Bramer said of the modern design, which residents from Manhattan will be able to see across the river.
Throughout the conversation, the councilman noted the positive sides of Long Island City’s development, such as the slated opening of a new park at Queens Plaza or the new JetBlue headquarters at LIC’s Brewster Building, adding that he supported the JetBlue sign the company has been working to get on its rooftop.
But not all development issues are a bed of roses, something Van Bramer readily acknowledged. At a community meeting in January on the first phase of the Hunter’s Point South project, for example, things turned contentious when residents questioned officials present as to why the first two residential towers, abutting Gantry Plaza, were going to be 100 percent affordable, and not a mix of 60/40 as the Department of Housing Preservation and Development had initially indicated.
Van Bramer, who was present at the meeting, emphasized that, “I was not in the room, I was not a part of that decision,” with reference to the 100 percent switch.
When asked if there might be such a thing as too much development in the area, Van Bramer answered, “In some ways, the market will dictate how much gets built,” though he noted “virtually every parcel of land” along the waterfront has been developed or will be.
Van Bramer forecasted a bright future for the area.
“I think property values in Hunter’s Point in Long Island City are going to go up,” he said. With the new park set to open this summer as part of the Hunter’s Point project, which he called “beautiful,” he added, “Everyone’s going to want to live there.”
“I think that what that presents to us is a challenge as a city,” he said of the rapid development. The city can’t “build all those buildings and then say, ‘We don’t have ‘A,’ we don’t have ‘B.’” In addition to the incoming 950 residential units as part of Hunter’s Point South’s first two towers, five new TF Cornerstone towers are going up near Court Square. In total, more than 10,000 units are slated for construction in Long Island City, according to the councilman.
Van Bramer said he would continue to push for improved transportation to the neighborhood, and had not yet given up on the idea of a shuttle bus to transport residents through the midtown tunnel to Manhattan during 7 train closures in the future — he had offered the MTA that he pay for such a shuttle from his member item funds, something the agency denied. The next round of weekend 7 train closures is planned for the fall.
“I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to accomplish the shuttle through the MTA,” Van Bramer said, but added that “in the past there have been some efforts at having a private nonprofit run a shuttle,” indicating that is something he will look into.
Among the many infrastructure issues related to rapid development, schools emerged as a focus for the councilman, who said he was proud that under his watch some four new schools were going to be built in the area, with a fifth in the works.
These are: IS/HS 404 at Hunter’s Point South, which is on track to open in the fall of 2013; PS 312 on 5th Street in LIC, where the Department of Education plans to relocate elementary school students from PS 78, also set to open in the fall of 2013; an elementary school in Sunnyside at 45-46 42 St., which will open in the fall of 2014; and a new 440-seat elementary school on 39th Avenue between 57th and 58th streets in Woodside, which should open in the fall of 2015.
Van Bramer said he hoped the new Woodside school could help ease overcrowding at PS 11, an elementary school located nearby at 54-25 Skillman Ave., by acting as a “swing space” where PS 11 students could be placed while PS 11’s “mini school” — a previous addition — is expanded by lifting its roof.
All told, the four new schools represent “more than 2,500 seats for the children of my district,” Van Bramer noted.
He also said he remained opposed to Mayor Bloomberg’s “turnaround” model for eight schools in Queens, including Long Island City High School and William Cullen Bryant High School, both within his district. If the plan is approved on April 26, about half of the teachers at Bryant and LIC will be replaced, something Van Bramer said made little sense.
“Bryant High School was threatened with closure last year,” he explained. At that time, school supporters, teachers and students came out to advocate for the school. “We talked to the chancellor, we went through this whole process,” Van Bramer said, before money was allocated to “transform” the school.
“Less than a year after we were given the transformation model ... all of a sudden they pull the plug. I don’t understand that at all.”
Although the turnaround of the school seems inevitable, Van Bramer added that he would “keep pressing the cause all the way right through to April 26.”