Artists Condemn New Queens Development “Masquerading as a Cultural Benefit”

Collaboration between Astoria Not For Sale and The Illuminator projected on the wall of Kaufman Astoria Studios in June (photo courtesy The Illuminator)

The anti-gentrification group Art Against Displacement (AAD) is calling on New York art institutions to reject a luxury development and rezoning plan in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria. An open letter, published Saturday, July 16 and signed by hundreds of art workers, organizers, and community members, accuses the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) and the Brooklyn arts center Pioneer Works of “artwashing” the $2 billion project Innovation QNS, which aims to establish a “mixed-use creative district” in what they call a “dormant corner” of the neighborhood.

Developed by Kaufman Astoria Studios in partnership with Silverstein Properties, Bedrock Real Estate, and the architecture firm ODA, Innovation QNS would redevelop the area immediately surrounding the historic Kaufman film studio and MoMI. AAD’s letter condemns MoMI’s cultural partnership and Pioneer Works’s alleged support of the project, which AAD says would gentrify a neighborhood of immigrant and working-class families in a “real estate deal masquerading as a cultural benefit.”

While MoMI’s affiliation to Innovation QNS is public, Hyperallergic could not independently verify the current status of Pioneer Works’s connection to the project, and the institution did not respond to several requests for comment.

In their proposal, the developers of Innovation QNS laid out plans for 12 new buildings on five blocks around the Steinway Street and 35th Avenue intersection, with eight buildings of more than 15 floors and two with 27 floors. While 2,120 apartment units will be set at market rates, only 725 will be permanently affordable. Additionally, 10,000 square feet of retail space will flank commercial green spaces for public use, plus 250,000 square feet for small businesses, startups, and nonprofits.

“Their proposal seeks to add more than a dozen new buildings with thousands of apartments — mostly studios and one-bedrooms for more than $3,000 a month,” AAD’s letter reads. “The handful of ‘affordable’ units included are still more costly than the average person can afford, yet the billionaires behind this project get a windfall of profit, because upzoning means they can build much higher on the same plot of land: They suddenly get thousands of paying tenants, rather than dozens.”

Rendering of 35th Avenue (all renderings courtesy Innovation QNS)

Early architectural renderings show the MoMI entrance surrounded by retail storefronts and pedestrian traffic. In a statement on the project’s website, MoMI Executive Director Carl Goodman describes the museum’s partnership as a “driving force” behind the “community-informed evolution of Astoria.”

“Astoria is known throughout the world as a community that nourishes creativity and culture, especially related to film and media production, and educational programs related to the media arts,” Goodman said. “We are excited to see an initiative led by our neighbors that will affirm Astoria’s identity and create opportunities for New Yorkers.”

MoMI did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Attempts to reach Pioneer Works leadership for comment remained unanswered. A Queens Gazette article from June cited Pioneer Works as one of several cultural entities that have “rallied around the plan,” and a town hall meeting presentation from April 20 shows Pioneer Works’s logo on page 11, which details Innovation QNS’s community partnerships. But that logo is no longer visible on any other documentation, and it is unclear whether the institution is still involved.

Two artists planning an upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn-based cultural center, Liz Magic Laser and Ariana Reines, signed AAD’s missive, along with past exhibiting artist Xaviera Simmons.

Rendering of 38th Street Plaza

A current Pioneer Works employee who asked to remain anonymous told Hyperallergic that the Brooklyn institution may soon pull out of the project following the open letter, alleging that the developers added an outdated Pioneer Works logo from 2010 to the project’s website.

“This was a commitment made by a former Chief Operations Officer who no longer works with us,” the employee said. “As far as I know, Pioneer Works has no intention of moving forward on it, and any appearance of our name and branding was done without the board of directors’ approval.”

Jenny Dubnau, an artist and co-author of the open letter who is based in Jackson Heights, recalls getting priced out of her former Long Island City studio in 2018 after a 40% rent increase, which she attributes to commercial upzoning. She also points to the whitewashing of the 5 Pointz landmark that covered hundreds of local graffiti artists’ work and then replaced the original structure with a luxury tower of the same name. She laments that concrete evidence of artistic enrichment appears to be sorely lacking in the Innovation QNS plans, outside its commissioning of Queens-based artist Zeehan Wazed to paint a mural along Steinway Street. (Wazed did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)

“Whenever I dig deeper into their claims about free arts programs and residences, I find there is nothing to actually back it up,” Dubnau continued. “Meanwhile, Queens is becoming less and less hospitable due to rising rents for both residential and work spaces.” Hyperallergic inquired about Innovation QNS’s plans for arts programming; the developer did not provide additional comment.

Dubnau and fellow artist and co-author Vanessa Thill argue that New York’s cultural sector should be held accountable for what they see as encouraging gentrification, particularly art institutions like MoMI that receive city and federal funding

“We see this same dynamic over and over again,” Thill told Hyperallergic. “Cultural institutions and their boards really do not have the interests of artists in how they govern. We want to give people a chance to voice opposition, including those affiliated, from staff members to exhibiting artists and former colleagues.”

“The developers claim they are going to create an arts district, as if there isn’t already a natural arts district wherever people and culture exist,” Dubnau said. “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.” 

Innovation QNS has also drawn ire from tenant unions and political organizations since its certification in April. Grassroots groups Astoria Not For Sale and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities have staged demonstrations with elected officials, including 36th Assembly District Representative Zohran Kwame Mamdani, to rally nonprofits and politicians to oppose the project. Queens Community Board 1, which covers the area allotted for development, also voted to reject the proposal for conflating public and commercial green spaces, with member Gerald Caliendo claiming it did not respect the “character of both the adjoining residential blocks.” 

Despite these interventions, Kaufman Vice President Tracy Capune contends that its status as a historic film studio speaks for itself.

“Kaufman Astoria Studios and its partners have a decades-long history of supporting the arts and culture and strengthening communities,” Capune said in a statement to Hyperallergic. “Innovation QNS grows the Kaufman Arts District — founded by the Studio and the Museum of the Moving Image — and creates new opportunities for people to experience, learn about, and create art in our community.”

MoMI’s $67 million building is one of 13 that comprised the original Astoria Studios complex, which was bought by Kaufman in the 1980s. Since then, the developer has intertwined the museum and film production company with commercial real estate, including purchasing and privatizing a formerly public backstreet in 2013. Then in 2021, venture capital firms Hackman Capital Pictures and Square Mile Capital Management bought the complex.

For Jake Davidson, an artist who has made work on displacement and a former MoMI educator, Innovation QNS echoes other similar examples of upzoning in Manhattan, such as Cooper Union and Hudson Yards. He argues organizing efforts like AAD have great potential for uniting artists, workers, and activists against the encroachment of luxury development on public cultural institutions.

“To not walk the walk is what makes us stand up and fight back,” he said. “Instead of cornering MoMI, which makes the institution even more inclined to side with commercial real estate, we should be working toward establishing an off-ramp that gives the museum an alternative from the grip of predatory developers.”