Today’s news:

Boro leaders break ground on Queens Plaza

The earth moved for city officials and Queens leaders in Long Island City Monday as they broke ground on the long-awaited Queens Plaza improvements.

Borough President Helen Marshall, city Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber, city Economic Development Corp. President Seth Pinsky and a host of others hoisted shovels full of fresh dirt to kick off the creation of what they hope will be the crown jewel of the neighborhood’s mixed-use district.

The $76 million first phase of the project will redirect traffic, plant trees and install a public green space at the center of the nexus of Jackson Avenue, Queens Boulevard and the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge. Work is expected to conclude in 2011.

A second phase of construction will continue the bike lanes and curb work from 21st Street east to Vernon Boulevard.

The bulk of the money was contributed by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria), who helped procure $19.7 million in federal money along with another $33 million in stimulus funding. Maloney was not available to attend the ceremony Monday, but said in a statement that the funds “will do more to change the character of Long Island City than any other government investment in a generation.”

The city has allocated $23.7 million from its capital budget for the improvements.

“This project is critical for the future of what we’re trying to do in Long Island City,” Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber said.

Marshall, whose office contributed $500,000 to the project, praised the progress, but warned that economic development takes more than new roads and parks.

“We’ve allocated the money,” she said. “But it’s going to be up to the Long Island City Business Development Corp. to make it happen.”

“This project is going to give Long Island City a real sense of place,” Pinsky said.

Neighborhood leaders were also excited about the progress.

“It just increased my life expectancy,” CB 2 Chairman Joseph Conley said. “One, I have a better chance of getting across Queens Plaza without becoming a piece of protoplasm, and two, my lungs will be filled with cleaner air.”

The infrastructure work will complement the massive, mixed-use Gotham Center under construction at the site of the old Queens Plaza Municipal Garage at Queens Plaza South and Jackson Avenue. Construction began in October on the first phase of the project, a 662,000-square-foot, 21-story tower anchored by the new headquarters of the city Health Department.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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