Anti-gentrification group Art Against Displacement (AAD) is urging New York’s arts institutions to reject a luxury development and rededication plan in the borough of Queens Astoria. An open letter released on Saturday, July 16 and signed by hundreds of artists, organizers and community members accuses the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) and Brooklyn arts center Pioneer Works of the $2 billion Project Innovation has “artwashed” QNS, which aims to build a “mixed-use creative district” in what they call a “dormant corner” of the neighborhood.
Innovation QNS was developed by Kaufman Astoria Studios in collaboration with Silverstein Properties, Bedrock Real Estate and architectural firm ODA redevelop the immediate area surrounding historic Kaufman Film studio and MoMI. AAD’s letter condemns MoMI’s cultural partnership and alleged support of Pioneer Works the project that AAD says would gentrify a neighborhood populated by immigrant and working-class families a “real estate deal masquerading as cultural gain”.
While belonging to the MoMI Innovation QNS is public Hyperallergic could not independently verify the current status of Pioneer Works’ connection to the project, and The institution did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In their proposal, Innovation QNS developers presented plans for 12 new buildings in five blocks around the intersection of Steinway Street and 35th Avenue, with eight buildings taller than 15 stories and two taller than 27 stories. While 2,120 housing units are fixed at market prices, only 725 are permanently affordable. Additionally, 10,000 square feet of retail space will flank commercial green space for public use, as well as 250,000 square feet for small businesses, startups, and nonprofit organizations.
“Their proposal aims to add more than a dozen new buildings with thousands of apartments — mostly studios and one-bedroom apartments for more than $3,000 per month,” the AAD letter said. “The handful of ‘affordable’ units included are still more expensive than the average person can afford, but the billionaires behind this project get an unexpected win because they can upzon to build much higher on the same lot: you get suddenly there are thousands of paying tenants instead of dozens.”
Early architectural renderings show the MoMI entrance surrounded by retail stores and foot traffic. In a statement on the project’s website, MoMI Executive Director Carl Goodman describes the museum’s Partnership as “the driving force” behind the “community-informed development of Astoria”.
“Astoria is known around the world as a community that fosters creativity and culture, particularly in relation to film and media production, as well as educational programs related to media arts,” said Goodman. “We welcome an initiative from our neighbors that will reaffirm 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 went unanswered. A Queen’s Gazette June article cites Pioneer Works as one of several cultural entities “rallied around the plan,” and a presentation at an April 20 town hall meeting shows the Pioneer Works logo on page 11, representing Innovation’s community partnerships QNS describes. But that logo is no longer visible on any other documentation, and it’s unclear if the institution is still involved.
Two artists planning an upcoming show at the Brooklyn Cultural Center, Liz Magic Laser and Ariana Reines, signed the letter from AAD, along with previous exhibiting artist Xaviera Simmons.
A current Pioneer Works employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told Hyperallergic that Brooklyn Institution could soon pull out of the project after the open letter, claiming that the developers added an outdated Pioneer Works logo from 2010 to the project’s website.
“This was a commitment from a former chief operations officer who no longer works for us,” the employee said. “As far as I know, Pioneer Works has no intention of proceeding with this and any appearance of our name and brand has been made without board approval.”
Jenny Dubnau, a Jackson Heights-based artist and co-author of the open letter, recalls being fired from her former Long Island City studio in 2018 after a 40% rent increase, which she attributes to commercial zoning. She also points out the whitewash of the 5-point landmark that covered hundreds of works by local graffiti artists and then replaced the original structure with a luxury tower of the same name. She laments that there seems to be concrete evidence of artistic enrichment sorely absent from the Innovation QNS plans, out there 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 delve deeper into their claims about free arts programs and residencies, I find nothing to actually support them,” Dubnau continued. “Meanwhile, Queens is becoming less hospitable due to rising rents for living and working space.” Hyperallergic inquired about Innovation QNS’ plans for arts programming; The developer did not provide any 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 promoting gentrification, particularly arts institutions like MoMI, which receive city and state funding.
“We keep seeing this dynamic,” Thill told Hyperallergic. “Cultural institutions and their boards really don’t have the interests of artists as they govern. We want to give people the opportunity to voice their opposition, including loved ones, from staff to exhibiting artists and former colleagues.”
“The developers claim that they will create a bohemian quarter as if there wasn’t already a natural bohemian quarter wherever there are people and culture,” Dubnau said. “For this to become an arts district, they would need to provide free and low-cost cultural events to the existing community and real benefits for actual working artists.”
Innovation QNS has also drawn the ire of 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 representatives, including 36th Assembly MP Zohran Kwame Mamdani, to rally non-profit organizations and politicians against the project. Queens Community Board 1, which covers the area earmarked for development, also voted to reject the merger proposal public and commercial green space, with member Gerald Caliendo claiming it did not respect the “character of the two adjoining blocks of flats”.
Despite these interventions, Kaufman vice president Tracy Capune maintains that its status as a historic film studio speaks for itself.
“Kaufman Astoria Studios and its partners have a decades-long history of supporting arts and culture and empowering communities,” Capune said in a statement to Hyperallergic. “Innovation QNS expands 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.”
The $67 million MoMI building is one of 13 buildings that comprised the original Astoria Studios complex, which was purchased 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 side street in 2013. In 2021, venture capital firms Hackman Capital Pictures and Square Mile Capital Management bought the complex.
For Jake Davidson, an artist who has done work on displacement and a former MoMI educator, innovation QNS reflects other similar examples of upzoning in Manhattan, such as Cooper Union and Hudson Yards. He argues that organizing efforts like AAD have great potential to unite artists, workers and activists against the encroachment of luxury development on public cultural institutions.
“Not walking the path is what makes us stand up and fight back,” he said. “Rather than corner MoMI, which makes the institution even more siding with commercial real estate, we should work towards building an off-ramp that offers the museum an alternative from the grip of predatory developers .”