A Times Square-style souvenir shop has opened in industrial Long Island City. Just New York Souvenir, at 38-85 13th Street, half a block from the NYCHA Queensbridge Houses, sits within a 10 block Industrial Business Zone where low-rise warehouses and factories dominate but at least 13 hotel sites have cropped up.
“This looks like something on Canal Street,” said a man who stopped in mid-day to sell recycling services.
The owner, Telisha Lee, an LIC native, is assistant to the CEO of Urban Upbound, a public housing community-support organization with a location across the street. “When I started seeing all the hotels popping up I said wow,” she said. “I said hey, maybe I could open up a souvenir shop.” She added she saw the shop as a way to help her jewelry business by eventually displaying her jewelry there.
The Ravenwood IBZ, between 21st Street and the East River, was carved out more than a decade ago under a zoning regime intended to preserve manufacturing. The city succeeded in preventing residential development from taking over this stretch of the Queens waterfront but saw instead the rise of a hotel district. The de Blasio administration, with the support of the city council, announced in 2015 it would create special permit requirements for hotels and storage facilities in these carve-outs. But this has been slow to get underway. The permit requirement for storage facilities came about last year. And just this week, the Department of City Planning launched a public review processfor the hotel special permit proposal.
Ten years ago, after the IBZs were established, the late New York Daily News real estate reporter, Jason Sheftell, compared this carve-out in LIC to “Williamsburg 20 years ago or the Meatpacking District of the 1960s.”
The area is part of the LIC IBZ, which is actually six zones, with this one in Ravenswood, where LIC meets Astoria along the waterfront. In 2008, Sheftell predicted: “(Ravenswood) is five to 10 years from being a completely different place. The IBZ can’t last forever. This area will have to become more residential than it is now. Nothing this close to Manhattan can remain factory land forever.”
Residential development has been underway in the Ravenswood area, at Alma Realty’s waterfront rental complex at 34-46 Vernon Boulevard and Excel’s Vernon Tower by Socrates Sculpture Park. And Blue Mountain Capital recently bought a warehouse property at 11-35 31st Drive, a site zoned to allow residential use.
But the IBZ in Ravenswood is still gritty. Cats still crawl under iron fences and the streets are still desolate at night. Troma Entertainment, the indie-horror movie company is still based here, woodworkers still make custom boxes on 10th Street and newspapers are still printed on Vernon Boulevard before dawn.
“Even though it’s an industrial area I still believe that it’s going to keep turning into the new New York City,” Lee said.
This is what it looks like now. Every day, tourists roll their suitcases from the 21st-Street Queensbridge F-train station past a mural of native rapper Nas and his serious gaze, to the large, beige, Best Western Plus. Or they pass the souvenir shop to get to the Sleep Inn, which sits next to a vacant warehouse. Further down the street is the Giorgio Hotel, between Stone Masters Inc. and Chris Auto Repair. The Howard Johnson on 12th Street looks out onto a vacant lot where another hotel is planned, next to the James Paretti building, an old political club house once known as a club called Exile and now home to an event space called Tammany House. The Mayflower Boutique Hotel a couple doors down opened a few weeks ago. A couple of the near-complete hotels are more original in appearance. The La Quinta Inn, with some tropical color, mostly matches the gray, industrial power plant right behind it. And Hotel Nirvana on 37th Avenue is all gray and bulky like a factory, lit up by blue lights at night.
The oncoming hotels suggests more retail and even souvenir shops will come to the IBZ, says Shan, an employee at Just New York Souvenir. “A year, a year and a half, you’re going to find so many stores here,” he said, before specifying gift shops.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Rob MacKay, director for Queens Tourism Council. “I don’t think any of those tourists necessarily walk around down there. Most of the Long Island City tourists are there because they want to be one subway stop from Manhattan so they’re probably going to Manhattan.”
Asked if Just New York Souvenir is the first gift shop of its kind in Queens, MacKay said some stores have some New York souvenirs, but he hadn’t heard of entire shops as such in the borough.