The Department of Education (DoE) building is a massive 561,000 square foot City-owned facility in Long Island City, Queens. It was built in 1948 by the Works Progress Administration when the industrial Anable Basin area was home to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil storage tanks and a giant open-cut freight rail yard. While it originally opened for use by the New York City Department of Purchase, the extinct city department that handled the purchasing of goods and services by the City of New York, for most of its life the building has been used to house the operations and offices of the Department of Education.
The Department of Education has conducted its operations out of 44-36 Vernon Boulevard for decades, and over time a variety of different uses have been carved into the open-plan interior of the building. One such use is a technical workshop. Because so many of the schools that the Department of Education runs are at least 100 years old, much of their equipment is old and requires specialized maintenance and repairs. This workshop is used to do those unique repairs and rebuild machinery that hasn’t been on the market for decades.
A significant portion of the building is also used to house the offices of the Department of Education’s administrative staff. The building was constructed using giant concrete pilings to hold up each floor, which allows for the open-plan office style seen above. Cubicles can be found spread out across multiple floors of the building, often coexisting alongside workshops and storage spaces.
Another one of the Department of Education building’s many uses is as a center of distribution for the entire New York City school system. All of the dry food for schools across the city is stored, sorted, and shipped from this building by using its four loading docks and four freight elevators. What’s even more remarkable, this entire process takes place in the early morning hours from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., making it almost invisible to the average New Yorker.
In 2012, the basement of the Department of Education building was flooded when Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York with a ten foot storm surge. The floodwaters took out the building’s boilers and two of the four freight elevators. As a result, a temporary boiler has powered the building for the last decade and they continue to operate only half of their freight elevators.
The building’s roof offers stunning panoramic views of the East River and Manhattan skyline. The majority of the roof area currently sits unused, although it’s structurally sound and could potentially support creative uses like a rooftop farm. The land just to the north of the Department of Education building is privately owned and awaiting redevelopment, but during the years that it’s lied fallow, nature has started to make a comeback.
Even though the structure loomed over Vernon Boulevard and the surrounding waterfront for almost 70 years, it remained in relative obscurity due to its lack of public access. However, in late 2018 Amazon announced that it was looking to build a second headquarters on the site surrounding the Department of Education building, suddenly thrusting it into the public eye. A groundswell of community organizing and protesting against Amazon’s proposed HQ2 led local City and State elected officials to turn against the major redevelopment plan, and Amazon ultimately pulled out of the deal on Valentine’s Day 2019. Since then, many of those same organizers have been putting together a community-based plan for the renovation and reuse of the Department of Education building, which they are calling the Queensboro People’s Space.
The Queensboro People’s Space is a proposal by the non-profit Western Queens Community Land Trust (WQCLT) to use the community land trust model to renovate and reactivate the Department of Education building as long-term, deeply affordable commercial space. The QPS project is the culmination of over two years of outreach conducted by the WQCLT, who crystallized the multiple visions for this community hub into an architectural feasibility study produced by Bagchee Architects. The QPS plan would provide democratically-managed, low rent space to four main sectors that have been increasingly pushed out of Long Island City: arts, manufacturing, food justice, and healthcare.
If you want to learn more about the project then you can join the Western Queens Community Land trust at noon on May 14th outside in front of the Department of Education building at 44-36 Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City for their Public Launch event. There will be music, food, and speeches by the dozens of partner organizations, community members, and elected officials who support the QPS.
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