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Better Infrastructure Could Goose Return To Downtowns

Building bridges, train lines and roads is key to digging New York City out of its pandemic economic blues, and a recent federal approval for one of these projects bodes well for others in the future. 


The Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday approved the $2.1B LaGuardia AirTrain proposal, which is set to bring 3,000 construction jobs and add over $50M in local infrastructure improvements to the Queens airport's surrounding neighborhoods, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s proposal.

“It's really critical at this point in time,” L&L Holding Co. Executive Vice President and Director of Construction Jamil Lacourt said on a Bisnow Digital Summit this week. “History has shown us … this isn't the first time administrations have sought to spend dollars on infrastructure in order to pull economies out of recessions.”

The project, first proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2015, is set to provide a link from the airport in East Elmhurst, Queens, to Midtown Manhattan through the 7 subway line. It will also connect to the Long Island Railroad. 

“In my opinion, it’s long overdue. If you go to other major cities and competitors, the ease of access to and from their airports is not burdened by the traffic and congestion,” Taconic President and Chief Operating Officer Colleen Wenke said. “I hope it will have that ripple effect … you think about all of the other jobs and economic stimulus that it begins to create.” 

Infrastructure improvements are especially important as people begin to return to the city, she said. Already, developers are looking to improve their own buildings to prepare them for the return to office — in the first quarter of the year, the number of renovation permit filings were 16% above the 10-year quarterly average. 

“As we think about economic recovery, we also have to recognize that that means people returning to the city returning to their office spaces, returning to the hotels and utilizing the space here, and I think they go hand-in-hand,” Wenke said. “You have to provide confidence and stability in terms of the infrastructure, which then leads to being able to commute, to travel, to occupy spaces in a more comfortable way.”

Clockwise from top left: Herrick partner Brendan Schmitt, Talisen Construction CEO Joseph Rigazio, Taconic President and Chief Operating Officer Colleen Wenke, L&L Holding Co. Executive Vice President and Director of Construction Jamil Lacourt, The Durst Organization principal and Chief Development Officer Alexander Durst

There are several other much-needed infrastructure plans that the construction and development industry hopes to see approved in an infrastructure bill, The Durst Organization principal and Chief Development Officer Alexander Durst said on the panel. 

“The city has so many urgent needs,” he said. “From a resiliency perspective, if an infrastructure plan is passed, it can only be a good thing for the city.” 

Included on this to-do list are the next phase of the Second Avenue subway, the Gateway Project and improvements on the Bronx-Queens Expressway, Durst said. 

More projects like this could soon be on the horizon. Cuomo outlined a $306B infrastructure wish list for the state in a budget proposal this year, with most of the projects in New York City, including a redesign of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square, a new park near the Javits Center and a plan to connect the High Line to the newly built Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station. 

The AirTrain proposal extends beyond the rail line. It also includes a $23M investment in the Flushing Bay Promenade with an additional $7.5M for ongoing improvements as well as a $20M investment into parks in the area, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Not everyone agrees that the project will help New York’s recovering economy. Critics of the project, including progressive New York State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who represents the area, claim that community stakeholders were not given enough say in the process, AM New York reported in April.

“This is a huge slap in the face by [Cuomo] to the residents of East Elmhurst,” she said in a tweet when the project was approved. “COVID has already taken a devastating toll on our neighbors. The last thing we need is a multi-billion dollar vanity project that will further affect the health & well-being of our communities.” 

During an interview with ABC7, Ramos said that the investment should go towards extending the N and W subway lines to the airport instead, claiming that the two-stop airport line would not help the people living in the communities along it. 

“For decades Queens has been a transportation desert,” she stated in a tweet Friday. “Extending the N/W line would serve those in the community not ignoring them & allow easy access to the new LGA for all [New Yorkers].” 

Cuomo and real estate industry groups voiced their support for the approval.  

“As New York continues to forward on the path to recovery, ongoing investment in key infrastructure projects such as the LaGuardia AirTrain will play a critical role in creating good jobs for New Yorkers, expanding reliable and affordable mass transit options, and strengthening our local and regional economies,” Real Estate Board of New York President James Whelan said in a statement this week.