In New York City, where developers are perceived as destructive to communities and enablers of gentrification, long-overdue upgrades for decades- and centuries-old infrastructure are finally underway and some players are engaging differently. “I'm happy they included community folks, too. Sometimes these things don't actually involve community people, said NYS Assembly District Leader Richard David at the May 15th opening of the new TWA Hotel, as part of the massive JFK Redevelopment project.
District 31 includes neighborhoods in Southeast Queens and JFK Airport, the site of a major redevelopment that has been years in the making. One of the first major projects, a conversion of the abandoned yet iconic TWA, or Trans World Airlines, flight center into a state-of-the-art hotel and convention center, was revealed on May 15th. Once called the "Grand Central of the Jet Age", it gained landmark status in 2005 and began to stir buzz in the community and among other potential stakeholders, including JetBlue and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. According to David and others, community members had been exploring space repurposing to avoid demolition since the company’s closure in 2001.
In 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo confirmed that a public-private partnership had been established for its transformation and in October of 2018, he made a $13 billion commitment to the redevelopment of the infrastructure of JFK - including new terminals, runways, the new hotel, and more. ““It is going to be what New York deserves, which is the front door for an international community to come and visit and do business.”
In early talks with the city, Tyler Morse, the CEO of MCR and Morse Development, found it difficult to get local officials to buy-in, including a failed pitch to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg who told him that the project wasn’t worth pursuing. Ultimately, his team took a more grassroots approach and assembled a massive team effort. “It took a lot of hard work. Seven thousand people worked on this project and 178 different companies. We worked with 14 preservationists groups, 22 government agencies. We participated in 18 workforce employment programs. We went through the New York City ULURP process.” But some of the greatest support came from local community boards 10, 12, and 13.
The community rallied around the redevelopment, forming an advisory council made up of elected officials, civic leaders at all levels, local clergy, and other community members including Councilmember Donovan Richards of District 31. “It's much broader than just this hotel. We need to make sure that, you know, when $13 billion is allocated for a community that the local residents benefit from it. MWBE procurement and local jobs hiring is something that was important to the council.” MWBEs, or Minority and Women Business Enterprises, play a significant role in the predominantly Black and Brown community districts that surround JFK and goals have been set by stakeholders and the state alike. The agreed upon goal for the TWA project was 17 percent and they hit 22 percent, according to Morse. Councilmember Richards added that the goal for the entire redevelopment sits around 40 percent, but they appear to be on track to meet or exceed the goal.
However, Morse and his development team’s engaged approach has bred positive results thus far. The president of the partnering New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council union, Peter Ward, described him as, “one of the single most responsible developers in the city of New York. Every box that needs to be checked has been checked. Outreach to the community. Respect to the community. Outreach to partners in labor. Every group and every person that's affected by this hotel, in this community, has been met with, talked to and listened to. That doesn't happen in most development projects and Tyler sets the gold standard in this area.”
Councilman Richards added that the development team were very prepared when they came to the table. “More prepared than most developers we've dealt with in the past. They did their due diligence in terms of doing outreach to everybody, including people in the local community, the local organizations. They've made every effort, you know, working in tandem with the electeds to ensure that they're reaching these goals, but you know, at the end of the day, we trust but we verify, so I think we’ll be looking for that data as we move along.”
Nantasha Williams is the External Affairs & Community Outreach manager at the Port Authority, an adamant supporter of the redevelopment works. She is also a member of the community advisory council and has worked alongside her peers to ensure that, at all levels, MWBEs are involved in redevelopment projects. “It can range. It can be construction training, to engineering, professional services, lawyers, accountants. Even to some of the other things that you might not think of, like catering, printing.”
Ultimately, time will tell whether the project is successful for the surrounding communities, but for those who once worked at TWA during its heyday, like Marcia Bytnar-Rouse and her older sister, Karen, returning to the space feels like going back in time. “[I] haven't had this uniform on in 20 years, but it was very exciting to think that we're fortunate enough to walk into our past. It's like a family reunion in our old house.”