This New York Development Has an Artwashing Problem

A proposal to transform an industrial area of Queens into a sprawling mixed-use development and “arts district” has come under fire for its flimsy commitments to the cultural sphere.

Rendering of Innovation QNS

In late July, the anti-gentrification group Art Against Displacement published an open letter calling on a few New York art institutions to sever ties with Innovation QNS, a luxury development proposed for Astoria, Queens. The letter, signed by 200 locals, accuses the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) and Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works of “artwashing” the $2 billion project, which is being overseen by developer Larry Silverstein, film production mainstay Kaufman Studios, and Bedrock Realty. The plan calls for a dozen new ODA New York–designed buildings across five blocks with retail units, green space, and offices.

What is artwashing? Jenny Dubnau, who co-authored the letter with fellow artist Vanessa Thill, defines it as “when real estate entities use cultural capital to rebrand their luxury developments.” One notable example occurred when developers David and Jerry Wolkoff razed the 5 Pointz graffiti building in nearby Long Island City and built two luxury towers in its place with bronze replicas of street art in the lobby. (Before and after images reveal a stark transformation.) “For every artist who gets tossed a crumb, like a temporary studio or a chance to make art for the lobby of a new hotel in a manufacturing zone,” Dubnau writes, “there are dozens of other artists who lose their studios because the surrounding rents go up as a result of the luxury development that these ‘opportunities’ reside in.”

A visual by Astoria Not For Sale and The Illuminator projected onto Kaufman Astoria Studios. Image courtesy of The Illuminator

Kaufman Studios claims that Innovation QNS will create an arts district around MoMI, but hasn’t revealed further details beyond commissioning Queens-based artist Zeehan Wazed to paint a mural along nearby Steinway Street. The open letter dismissed Kaufman’s claim as a “real estate deal masquerading as a cultural benefit,” arguing that the project will gentrify Astoria and price out artists. 

“Whenever I dig deeper into their claims about free arts programs and residences, I find there is nothing to actually back it up,” Dubnau tells Hyperallergic. “The developers claim they’re going to create an arts district, as if there isn’t already a natural arts district wherever people and culture exist. For this to be an arts district, they would need to provide the existing community with free and low-cost cultural events and real benefits to actual working artists.”

Rendering of Innovation QNS

ODA New York, the architecture firm behind Innovation QNS, is no stranger to gargantuan developments. The firm spearheaded Denizen Bushwick, a mixed-use complex that brought more than 900 apartments to the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood in 2018. Eager to engage with the area’s predominantly working class Latino community, ODA founder Eran Chen launched the charitable organization Open New York and commissioned local artists to create sweeping, multistory murals along the building’s glass-sided hallways to some praise. It’s unclear whether Open New York, whose social media accounts have been inactive since early 2019, is involved with Innovation QNS. 

Tensions about affordable housing are high as New York City grapples with skyrocketing rents, especially now that pandemic-era discounts have ended. According to a new report, the average Manhattan rent surpassed $5,000 in June for the first time as landlords sought to recoup their losses. Most of the 2,800 units planned for Innovation QNS are studios and one-bedrooms priced at more than $3,000 per month, though 711 units will be earmarked as “affordable” at below $1,675 per month. Detractors argue that even with affordable units, building more than 2,100 luxury apartments will lead to higher rental prices and the displacement of current residents, many of whom are low-income immigrants of color.

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