Life

Long Island City — future home to Amazon HQ — is one of NYC's hottest new spots for young people

Laura Begley Bloom, Special to CNBC
A view of the waterfront of Long Island City in the Queens borough of New York, along the East River, on November 7, 2018.
Don Emmert | AFP | Getty Images

Long Island City — one of New York City's hottest up-and-coming neighborhoods — is about to get a whole lot hotter, thanks to Amazon. The Seattle-based digital behemoth announced Tuesday that it had selected the Queens, New York, enclave as a location for its second headquarters and planned to make a $2.5 billion economic investment there, as well as create 25,000 jobs.

But this is just the latest news for LIC.

In 2017, Long Island City was America's fastest growing neighborhood, and it's the fastest growing one in New York City, with an increasingly young population (51 percent under the age of 34) who have been gentrifying the area. It's now home to over 150 restaurants, bars and cafes (some of them Michelin-starred); more than 39 arts and cultural institutions, including MoMA PS1, a leading modern art space; five waterfront parks; and 32 hotels, with 43 more in the works.

One person who has witnessed the neighborhood's transformation is Jonathan Forgash, 51, a local entrepreneur who runs culinary service Servana. He lives on the northern fringe of Long Island City and has been in the neighborhood since 1995, well before hipsters started crossing rivers and bridges to get there.

"For the longest time, Long Island City was a nothing neighborhood with a semi-industrial mix of businesses and some residents — it was a quiet place with the greatest views in the world," Forgash tells CNBC Make It.

"Then developers discovered that it's just one subway stop away from Manhattan."

Shiny glass condo towers started to rise around 2006, according to Eric Benaim, 40, founder of local real estate company Modern Spaces. The waterfront began to transform, thanks to green spaces like Gantry Plaza State Park, home to the landmark neon Pepsi-Cola sign. And critically acclaimed restaurants like M. Wells, in MoMA PS1's cafeteria, started popping up too.

Pepsi Cola billboard on Long Island City in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

M. Wells, which earned a Michelin star in 2015, now has a second location in LIC — a steakhouse hidden in an old auto body garage. Others in the culinary world have staked their claim: Rising star Cosme Aguilar opened Casa Enrique, a sophisticated Mexican restaurant that the Michelin guide inspectors lauded for its "amazingly complex menu," and Mu Ramen, a buzzing ramen shop was opened by a veteran of Per Se. Dan Kluger, the chef who helped ABC Kitchen win a James Beard Award, just announced that he will open a restaurant within the JACX, a multiple-tower real estate project.

Hotels from millennial favorite Aloft to boutique spots like Paper Factory Hotel (in what else but a 100-year-old paper factory) have hip and eclectic decor, amenities like trendy coffee and cheaper rates than Manhattan.

And the neighborhood is a draw for artists and creative types. PS1 now has popular summer concert series Warm Up and performance series VW Sunday Sessions, among other events. There's performance space The Chocolate Factory, where the Obie-winning programming "tends toward the highly physical, the interdisciplinary and the avant-garde," according to Time Out New York. Kaufman Astoria Studios was the original home of Paramount Pictures, but these days, television shows like Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" and movies are shot there and the original commissary is a restaurant.

Brands like Macy's, Ralph Lauren, Gwynnie Bee and Madewell have opened offices in Long Island City, though the local retail tends toward boutiques and thrift stores.

"It's a melting pot in Long Island City," says TJ Kawamura, 25, a data science strategist for real estate asset manager Compound. He moved to Long Island City a year ago from Miami, but was born and raised in Manhattan.

"It's an oasis away from Manhattan. And being in real estate, I like being in areas that are quickly developing and seeing how the changes happen in real time."

Oliver Reimers, 33, is another transplant, who moved from Frankfurt, Germany, after getting hired as manager of corporate counsel for JetBlue Airways, which opened a cool office in Long Island City in 2012. He lives in one of the new high-rise towers with a basketball court and a rooftop pool overlooking the skyline, paying $2,970 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

"I have friends in Manhattan who have a studio for about the same price — and they're facing the wall of the building next door," says Reimers, who has embraced everything the neighborhood has to offer. "It's like it's own little village. It has everything you need and it's cheaper than going out in Manhattan."

Forgash also says that he loves how far the neighborhood has come. "I appreciate the gentrification. It's a playground for adults and kids," he says.

Not everyone is as excited, of course.

Michele Melnick, 45, a longtime resident who runs a technology consulting firm in nearby Long Island, tells CNBC Make It that there are problems with the neighborhood's infrastructure — including overcrowded subway cars, traffic jams, lack of parking, and buildings with flooding issues.

"None of these real issues are being addressed, and the truth is that anyone who lives here and has to live with this, they know that nothing is going to happen overnight," says Melnick.

And gentrification has its casualties: 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, a space covered in graffiti murals on old buildings, which Time Out New York once called "the city's most spectacular showcase of street-art talent," is being turned into the 5 Pointz condos, for example.

Even Amazon coming has its positives and negatives. Linda Nguyen, 33, the founder and owner of City Owlets, a 2-year-old indoor kids' playspace in LIC, tells CNBC Make It that she is concerned about how the headquarters' arrival will impact real estate prices.

"I come from Dallas, where $700,000-$800,000 will buy you a 3,000-square-foot house," she says. "I pretty much live in a place that's the size of a closet in Dallas. It's ridiculous."

According to Streeteasy, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $4,117 a month (almost double the price of the rest of the borough of Queens) and the median sales price for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,322,000.

Despite the naysayers, Long Island City is abuzz and Amazon is already heightening the appeal. Even before the news was made official, Long Island City's already booming real-estate market started blowing up on the potential of the company coming to town. Realtors reported a frenzy of requests, with condos being sold by text, sight unseen. Redfin, a real-estate listing website, says that in the week ending November 11, views of homes for sale in Long Island City were up 1,049 percent from the same time last year.

"It went from a buyer's market to a seller's market overnight, negotiations are over, we are seeing bidding wars and people buying units sites unseen," says Benaim of Modern Spaces. "This is no gold rush, it's an Amazon Rush."

The real estate asset manager Compound is so bullish on the neighborhood that the company is announcing an HQ2-focused investment fund next week.

"This is a real opportunity," says Elizabeth Lusskin, 54, president of the Long Island City Partnership. "There will be more street life, more customers going to restaurants, bars, retail," says Lusskin. "[It] is going to be very advantageous for the neighborhood."

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