5Pointz Backfire: Developer Blasted For Taking Back Building He Let Artists Use for Decades

A lesson for future developers: probably just best to let your building rot.
Community engagement that a landowner may have come to regret.

During his opening remarks at the 5Pointz redevelopment hearing, developer David Wolkoff, whose father Jerry bought the Long Island City property in the 1970s, told the audience, “We’ve been members of the community for over 40 years.” Though they certainly tried (26 years! 29! 33! 4!), none of the speakers in opposition could quite top his time in Long Island City.

“I have fond memories of crawling in the basement of this building” as a child, he told the hostile crowd.

Normally the Wolkoffs wouldn’t have to grovel—it is, after all, their property. But the city dangles extra density as a carrot to developers— a tantalizing 60 percent in the case of this site— if they agree to build extra parking and plazas and to endure the public review process. (Amenities that Court Square has in abundance, including the surprisingly dense thicket of trees by One Court Square. If Jane Jacobs were still alive, we can’t help but wonder if she’d question the number of trees and the paucity of people.)

Some among the assembled masses had the normal NIMBY concerns about the project. Parking got the first audience mention (there will only be 250 spaces, which someone on the development team said was the only number allowed by law), and another person asked what the precedent was for adding that many units at once to a neighborhood (there will be about 1,000 apartments in the two-tower complex). (The Observer would guess that the precedent for this part of Queens was set in the late 19th century, when Wilhelm Steinweg set up Steinway Village, the Steinway & Sons company town.)

One woman, who described herself as a second soprano, a Quaker, and “middle aged and middle class” (the latter seemed a bit of a stretch) expressed concern that the developer wouldn’t be able to lease the units and would have to put them in the Section 8 federal housing program.

But most of the opposition to the scheme centered not around parking and neighborhood congestion, but around the loss of what is likely the most prominent exhibition for the aerosol arts on earth and draws busloads of tourists in the summer from around the world.

Most of the speakers, and especially the aerosol artists, spoke with considerable anger about the project. But those who knew the Wolkoffs—the family had, after all, been their way-below-market-rate landlord for decades—were more restrained.

At first we thought this was just the massing diagram, but no—this is what will replace 5Pointz.
At first we thought this was just a massing diagram, but no—turns out it’s the actual rendering.

“My only regret,” said 5Pointz curator Jonathan Cohen, “is that the same people who allowed me, unknowingly, to create such a cultural gem don’t see it the way I do.”

Mr. Wolkoff said repeatedly that his family was happy to have hosted the artists for so long, that they wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t have an abiding appreciation for the arts. But we couldn’t help but wonder if a part of him regretted turning the building over to the taggers who were now protesting against him outside.

The speakers, many of them aerosol artists, painted Mr. Wolkoff as a slick developer who would stop at nothing to make a buck, even if it meant, as one put it, destroying one of the few things that Long Island City has gotten right.

But the irony is that if Mr. Wolkoff had been better at playing the system, he probably could have profited handsomely from not tearing 5Pointz down.

The structure, Mr. Wolkoff told The Observer, was too expensive to salvage and integrate into the 1,000-unit development. But if he played his cards right, he might have gotten the community board to sign off on a bigger and more profitable building in exchange for integrating the graffitied walls into an adaptive reuse project and making them available to the public.

But the Wolkoffs, who hail from Long Island, have not displayed much New York savvy when it comes to the 5Pointz development. Some among the discontented masses mused that they might run out of money or try to flip the project once they got their 60 percent jump in density, which weren’t the craziest suggestions of the evenings—they’re small builders, and these are 40-odd-story skyscrapers they’re talking about.

This is a good sign for the health of the Long Island City real estate market—small, lower-cost developers like the Wolkoffs who don’t try to get special government favors are the hallmark of a competitive marketplace.

But it’s not good news for 5Pointz. Where a more connected and deep-pocketed builder might have leveraged the landmark into a payday, the Wolkoffs are razing it and hiring H. Thomas O’Hara to throw up a couple of bland boxes. 5Pointz Backfire: Developer Blasted For Taking Back Building He Let Artists Use for Decades