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Zoning plan to encourage housing in Hunters Point

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Pietro Mignano owns a prime piece of Long Island City real estate, but he can't do anything with it.

His vacant 8,000-square-foot warehouse on 47th Avenue between Vernon Boulevard and 5th Street is the odd man out on a road lined with houses, which means no industrial tenants will sign a lease for fear the neighbors would complain.

"We have a difficult time renting it to anybody that's going to make noise," he said. "It's a pretty block - much too pretty for something industrial."

He wants to tear down the structure and put up houses, but since the area is zoned predominantly for manufacturing he would have to jump through hoops of city red tape to get permission for it.

Nevertheless, he may soon get his chance. The city Department of City Planning is preparing to go before the public with plans to rezone Hunters Point in a way that fosters the kind of development that is already naturally happening in the neighborhood - namely, the creation of more housing and retail to join the light manufacturing that has historically thrived there.

"Right now there are a lot of restrictions on where you can build housing," said Penny Lee, a city planner. "These restrictions will by and large be eliminated."

The Hunters Point zoning changes are likely to enter a public review process in September, and city officials expect it to finally be adopted next spring. A team from the Department of City Planning presented the proposal Monday at a meeting sponsored by the Long Island City Business Development Corporation, where it was favorably received.

"They represent an easier way to facilitate what is the organic development in the area," said John Werwaiss of Werwaiss Realty Co., which owns a significant number of properties in the neighborhood. "It's a proper city response to what is the organic evolution in the area."

The plans are the latest stage in the city's ongoing efforts to promote growth in the Long Island City Special Mixed Use District, a large swath of land that extends south from Queens Plaza, stretching east-to-west from the Sunnyside Yards halfway to the East River. That region includes the Hunters Point Subdistrict - the area now under scrutiny.

By far the most radical zoning changes have already been put in place. A core area of 37 blocks was rezoned two years ago to permit high-density development, like the tall towers seen in Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn, and thus create a new central business district.

But the Hunters Point Subdistrict sits southwest of that area, and the changes there are far more subtle.

"This is a much finer-grained, lower-density neighborhood," Lee said. "We're really trying to respect that."

The most significant difference will be the type of use that is allowed in the neighborhood. Although in much of Hunters Point the current zoning forbids retail and only permits new housing under a laborious process few are willing to endure, the change would allow those uses as well as the continued presence of light manufacturers.

That would not only encourage stores and residences to go up, but also allow artists to legally put their studios in the area - something that they cannot currently do despite Long Island City's longtime popularity among artists. Spaces could even be used for both business and residence.

"People who want to live-work - whether it's production, writing, drawing - that is also allowed," Lee said. "It's very flexible zoning."

In 1995 new zoning was enacted along the main thoroughfares in Hunters Point - Vernon Boulevard, Jackson Avenue, 21st Street and 44th Drive - that did allow housing and retail while excluding manufacturing along those specific streets. The new zoning would largely keep those rules in place.

The proposal would not affect the zoning for Queens West, the high-rise residential and commercial development going up on the East River waterfront, which is a state project and exempt from city zoning regulations.

But on main streets that run north-south along the Queens West property, like 5th Street and 11th Street, the new zoning would allow slightly taller buildings to promote activity on the fringes of the state development, which will also have its own commercial core.

Lastly, the zoning plan would slightly alter the border of the Hunters Point Subdistrict- removing some zig-zags in favor of simple lines - while adding a few key blocks to the region.

Most notable is the three-block area bounded by 2nd Street, Borden Avenue, 5th Street and 49th Avenue, which runs alongside Queens West and features some unused former industrial buildings like the Pennsylvania Railroad power plant - sites that may be converted to residential use.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:04 pm, October 10, 2011
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