Flushing is already a multiethnic economic success story—how can the city spread the wealth and give the neighborhood some old-school public amenities?
In Kevin Lynch’s 1960 classic Image of the City, he identifies five elements that make a coherent, vivid place: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Most important are paths, which downtown Flushing has in spades. Main Street has the kind of business diversity, foot traffic, liveliness, and buzz Middle American main streets only dream of. Its growth into the country’s second-largest Chinatown has been fed by transportation: the end of the Pan-ethnic No. 7 line, a stop on the Long Island Rail Road, and proximity to La Guardia. These paths have created a concentrated retail district visually defined by signage: vertical neon, layered over low boxy buildings of no particular pedigree.
What Flushing has lacked, however, is edges, nodes, and landmarks, the urban grace notes present in the city’s prewar centers. Its principal peak is the clock tower on the U-Haul building. The unusual number of indoor malls don’t suck energy from the street, but give shoppers a rare pause. The only place of rest, for eye and body, is the small triangular plaza in front of the eight-year-old Queens Library branch at Kissena Boulevard, designed by Polshek Partnership, a sleek swatch of green animated by readers rather than lights.
It’s the building that should set the tone as Flushing grows up fast, via a combination of city planning and private development that should create the requisite Lynchian properties. First, a node: the five-acre, double-decker Municipal Parking Lot No. 1 will be replaced by Flushing Commons, a $500 million mixed-use retail, residential, and hotel development with 2,000 parking spots that will be green. Current architectural renderings are blah, reminiscent of faux town centers like Silver Spring, Maryland, but at its heart is a guitar-pick-shaped open space with terraced steps that will immediately be filled with people. It is a nouveau town square, sorely needed.
Second, edges. The Flushing River—like the Gowanus Canal, but bigger—sluggishly flows two blocks from Main Street. The polluted waters are being cleansed, and several developers are planning pieces of a once-laughable Flushing River Esplanade flanking the Roosevelt Avenue bridge.
A potential landmark sits at the end of Main Street, where the former RKO Keith’s Theater, now a darkened hulk, is to be transformed into the RKO Plaza—its exuberant hall preserved as the center of an entertainment and residential complex to top off the street.
There’s never going to be a skyline, a Shanghai on the Flushing, given the proximity to La Guardia, but the city’s redevelopment renderings suggest a tiny tower corridor along Roosevelt Avenue creating a gateway to the neighborhood.
The final piece of the puzzle is across that waterfront. If people do stroll the Flushing River—even Muss’s Jim Jarosik is quick to acknowledge, “there’s no question there is currently an odor issue”—they are going to start looking at the other side, where the auto-body, construction-supply, and food-distribution businesses of Willets Point have resisted change for decades. To drive through the area today is to feel as if you have left New York—it is wild and ramshackle, defiantly homemade, and the probable site of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes.
The Mets’ new and disappointingly retro-style stadium (why do we still mourn Ebbets Field?) will be built adjacent to Willets Point and is designed to meet up with a real neighborhood that might entice the game crowd to stick around. One side of the stadium abuts 126th Street, the west side of Willets Point, and a long Mets Museum structure will hold the street line.
Proposals for the site included an exposition center and a hotel. That bland directive is the centerpiece of an ambitious and futuristic plan submitted to the city by the Queens Chamber of Commerce. Architect Charles Lauster, who designed the plan with the Newman Institute at Baruch College, expanded the target zone from the triangle to include the Mets’ stadium, its parking lots, and the open rail yards that U.S. Open fans must cross to get to the Tennis Center. “We are suggesting a deck be built over the rail yards”—just like the one planned for the Atlantic Yards—“and that a large building with an exposition center, a hotel, a shopping mall, and offices become this great spine that connects the Corona side to the Flushing side.” The whole rail-yard span would become a rampartlike building swooping past the Mets’ stadium and opening up the Point as parkland. This scheme is unlikely to happen—the city has its sights on Willets Point alone—but it has urban power that all the current Flushing renderings lack. In Flushing, the city should take a step into its own best future. Most of the city is already doing so.
(1.) Queens Museum of Art
Grimshaw Architects, 2009.
(2.) Mets Stadium
HOK Sport, 2009.
(3.) Willets Point
No completion date.
This spring, eight developers, including Forest City Ratner, Muss, Related, and the local TDC Corporation, were chosen as finalists to redevelop 75-acre Willets Point. The site is currently the single-story industrial neighbor to Shea. The city envisions the point as the location of a mini–Javits complex, with an exposition center, a hotel, and the beginnings of a brand-new neighborhood. The Request for Proposals asked for superior and sustainable architecture, a pedestrian-friendly environment, and some sensitivity to the natural landscape. Such a scheme could be the mirror image of planned development on the opposite side of the Flushing River, creating greater flow with the adjacent communities.
(4.) Flushing Town Center
Perkins Eastman; fall 2007.
Though it sounds quasi-governmental, this $600 million project is, in fact, a commercial one that will create the first residential neighborhood west of Flushing’s Main Street and turn the sludgy Flushing River into an amenity. The owners have created a miniature drive-in city: a three-story retail and parking base, with 1,000 apartments in six medium-size towers above. Entrances are at the busy corner of Roosevelt Avenue and College Point Boulevard, the closest to Main Street. On the other side of the project, Muss will build a public waterfront esplanade—a new sewage plant is supposed to clean up the river—that will, as the river’s edge is built out, connect to developments by other builders.
(5.) RKO Plaza
Developer Boymelgreen, no completion date.
(6.) Flushing Commons
Perkins Eastman, 2009–2010.
(One Bryant Park)
The Freedom Tower (Ground Zero)
Silvercup West (Queens Waterfront)
The Verdesian (Battery Park City)
The Hearst Building (Midtown West)
The New York Times Building (Midtown West)