Borough President Melinda Katz discusses the Western Queens Tech Zone Strategic Plan // Credit: Andy Katz

BP Katz Unveils Western Queens Tech Zone

By Andy Katz

After seven years of strategizing, Long Island City’s Tech Plan has arrived.

On Thursday night, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, the Western Queens Tech Task Force, Coalition for Queens and HR&A Advisors gathered at a Long Island City WeWork to unveil the Western Queens Tech Zone Strategic Plan. The coalition of community organizations and businesses that ultimately created the Tech Plan first convened  in 2011.

Katz said the plan will bring more high-paying jobs to the region for local residents and make Western Queens the City’s “next leading tech ecosystem.”

“Western Queens offers a coveted, dynamic mixed-use community where workers can live, ideas can synergize, and businesses can thrive,” Katz said. “We commissioned the Tech Plan to facilitate a more equitable growth of this emerging global innovation hub.”

Katz also announced the creation of the Queens Tech Council, which includes representatives from local colleges, non-profit training centers, the Mayor’s office and the Queens Chamber of Commerce.

The Tech Council will address issues related to displacement, cost of living and inclusion of longtime community members.

Though Long Island City already features one of the city’s highest concentrations of art galleries and studio spaces, the neighborhood also hosts , the Queensbridge Houses, the city’s largest public housing development.

During the past decade, Long Island City has experienced a development boom and attracted thousands of young, upwardly mobile professionals to its new glass skyline. According to New York Magazine, Long Island City is the fastest growing neighborhood in the country. Meanwhile, the Western Queens Tech Roadmap states that developers will soon add 3 million square feet of office space to the community.

Beginning in 2014, the City developed an broad definition of “tech” that applies to three job categories: tech jobs in tech industries, non-tech jobs in tech industries, and tech jobs in non-tech industries, Katz said.

About 8 percent of all the jobs in the area — 8,400 jobs overall — meet that criteria, the Roadmap reports.

“The future of equitable tech growth is that we have to be sure we’re bringing all of our community members on board,” said Kate Wittels of HR&A Advisors.

Yet, according to the Roadmap, the percentage of people of color holding tech positions in Western Queens has actually declined from 54 percent to 46 percent since 2000.

“Our goal is to promote across-the-board tech jobs,” said Deputy Queens Borough President Melva Miller.

Miller said many of the tech positions promoted by the Strategic Plan do not require advanced degrees. Instead, she said, individuals prepare for positions like cable and satellite installation, through specialized training programs and apprenticeships.

The diminished emphasis on college instruction reflects a general trend where even “white tie” tech workers, such as programmers and coders, are now recruited from non-tech backgrounds and trained via mentorship by companies like Pinterest and LinkedIn, she said.

Coalition for Queens, an organization that played a key role in designing the plan, operates an Access Code program to train people from communities of color and other underserved communities for jobs in the tech sector.

The plan’s architects said they aim to position Western Queens as the nation’s leading tech center, surpassing more concentrated districts like Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, or South Lake Union in Seattle.

Obstacles persist, however.

In addition to the decreasing presence of people of color in the local tech sector, Western Queens’ lack of public gathering spaces and pedestrian-friendly retail corridors pose problems for creating a more egalitarian zone, the Tech Plan states.

Despite the Plan’s overall optimism, not all event attendees were convinced of the tech sector’s ability to foster equity and enable longtime residents to benefit from new development.

“See all of that construction?” said Long Island City insurance agent Anthony Gallo, referring to steel skeletons around Queens Plaza North. “Half of those units will remain unoccupied for the time being. When they do rent or sell, prices won’t meet the builders’ expectations.”

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