For decades, Long Island City in Queens, N.Y., represented a gritty, urban, mixed-use neighborhood. Oil refineries, a PepsiCo bottling plant, a power station, and modest low-rise apartments and single-family homes stood in sharp contrast to the sleekness and chicness Manhattan offered across the river.
In recent years, however, the differences have blurred and continue to do so with the opening of The PowerHouse, an adaptive reuse of the power station that once provided steam to electrify the Long Island and Pennsylvania railroads. Designed circa 1906 by McKim Mead & White, the firm that designed Grand Central, the building was vacant for a decade and used as a plumbing warehouse. Reopened in late 2008, the 177-unit property now attracts homeowners with spectacular views, swank layouts, and amenities to rival those in Manhattan.
The change represents the latest success story in a community that has taken years to transform itself. As apartment prices climbed and land became scarcer in New York and Brooklyn’s hip neighborhoods starting in the late 1990s, developers looked elsewhere and spotted an opportunity in Long Island City.
Easier Said than Done
Careful planning led to the successful development of The PowerHouse.
1. Balance conflicting wants. Many wanted to see the chimneys and power house demolished because they were unattractive; others took an historic approach and wanted to save these features. Architect Karl Fischer was in the latter camp because he felt the historic chimneys gave the project its identity. When they couldn’t be retained, he fought hard to add new round shapes that honored the power plant’s original features.
2. Be patient. Think that rehabbing is easier than building from the ground up? Not so, attests The PowerHouse’s development team. “Rehab adds a tremendous challenge. Unforeseen conditions arise, costs add up, and everything prolongs the work,” says developer Cheskel Schwimmer. Fischer agrees. “What gives the project its inherent charm also makes it harder and takes more time,” he says.
3. Load on multiple novel amenities to attract upscale buyers. Instead of just ho-hum features, the design team wowed the public with an eye-popping, two-story lounge with catwalk, extensive water features, and a stunning rooftop deck with private cabanas. Still to come: A courtyard garden.
Work in Progress
In 2003, developer Cheskel Schwimmer, president of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based CGS Developers, initially turned down the chance to buy the seven-story power house because of zoning restrictions. But a year later, he changed his mind when he learned the city was rezoning the area for residential development. Schwimmer and partner Zigmond Brach purchased the plant and the adjacent Schwartz Chemical Plant on a smaller site for roughly $24 million.
The developer teamed with architect Karl Fischer of Montreal-based Karl Fischer Architect, and they decided to demolish the buildings—including the removal of the iconic 275-feet chimneys—and construct the area’s first four condo structures.
The cost of demolition, though, spurred a design change—at least temporarily. Schwimmer decided it would be less costly to save the power house and chimneys and build a glass tower between them. But when they submitted their new plan for approval, they were told a ruling was necessary, which would prolong the process. “And there was no guarantee we would succeed,” Fischer says.
So the team changed course—again. The new plan left the base of the stone and brick power house and the arched windows intact. He added four levels to the building and corner windows. The new floors were set back and faced in copper-colored aluminum panels and glass. The architect removed the chimneys for structural reasons but in their place incorporated similar-but-shorter round glass “towers” to house living areas.
Industrial, urban, and gritty
Approximately $24 million for initial purchase
Industrial and urban without the gritty
Approximately $170 million for three phases
Construction began in 2006, with work tougher and more time consuming than expected. “Once you’re in an old building, you don’t know what you’ll find,” Fischer says.
The development team loaded the public and private spaces with novel amenities because they knew they had to make the building spectacular to attract buyers in today’s market.
“You don’t duplicate what others are doing but spend your money on what will stand out. Anyone can get a great faucet; not everyone can have a fabulous view,” says New York-based landscape architect Mark Sullivan, principal of Sullivan Group Design, who designed a rooftop deck featuring a combination of public and private zones.
Designer Andres Escobar, whose firmAndres Escobar and Associates is based in Montreal and New York, designed common areas and units to contrast old with cutting-edge new. Public spaces include a lounge with a catwalk viewing perch, spa, fitness center, media center, and children’s playroom.
“I like to see that authentic character show through,” Escobar says. He did so by exposing the original brick and steel columns in the common areas. Big glass expanses in the units bring in views of Manhattan and beyond.
Prices run from $570,000 for a one-bedroom to $1.3 million for a three-bedroom, about half the price of a comparable New York condo, says Jennifer Dorfmann, sales director for The PowerHouse, a Prudential DouglasElliman project. As of early November, 80 units have closed and 16 are under contract.
The development of two additional buildings with housing and 100,000 square feet of retail, a courtyard, and 150-car garage is in the works. Whether the 273 units will be condos, rentals, or a combo depends on the financing, Schwimmer says.
“It’s very tough now,” he says. Schwimmer pegs the project’s final cost at $170 million, with completion targeted for 2011.
“The area is booming, with more going on at Gantry Plaza State Park a few blocks north,” says Paul Januszewski, president of Queens West Development Corp. “The PowerHouse gives the area greater stability, which helps attract more people and retail. This is going to be the next hot neighborhood.”
Some think it already is.
Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.