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04.22.2011
Art Interrupted in Queens
Owner of artist haven will demolish and develop.
Graffiti-covered warehouse at Five Pointz, Long Island City.
Katherine Fung

For thousands of passengers who ride the 7 subway line, the graffiti-covered warehouse on Jackson Avenue is a familiar sight, but one that may be gone in two years. Owner Jerry Wolkoff plans to demolish the building in Long Island City and replace it with two high-rise towers and a luxury shopping mall.

The former 200,000-square-foot factory, known as Five Pointz, has been an outdoor exhibition space for aerosol art since 1993. Located across from MoMA PS 1, the structure occupies a city block and its five story walls are covered in murals. It has gained a reputation as a cultural landmark among New Yorkers as well as artists and hip-hop enthusiasts worldwide, drawing visitors every weekend. Curator Jonathan Cohen, who has run the art scene at Five Pointz for the past nine years, approves artists before they can paint. Cohen estimates that thousands of artists have passed through the space, which opens with 1,000 new pieces each spring. He explained, “I’m just focusing on the now and trying to make this next season the freshest ever.”

Though Wolkoff’s plan is still in conceptual stages, the proposed $350 million dollar project will include two 40-story residential buildings with up to 1,300 rental units, shops and a supermarket, as well as studios and a wall for artists. Wolkoff is in talks with the Department of City Planning to develop the size and scope of the project. As proposed, the towers exceed the height restrictions under current zoning laws and will require a zoning variance.

Five Pointz
Detail of exterior wall facing Jackson Avenue.
 
 

Wolkoff cited location as a primary factor making the block ripe for re-development. The project, located fifteen minutes away from Manhattan, will target young people. Wolkoff, who has owned the property since 1971, began considering re-development ten years ago, and has been waiting for the neighborhood to reach critical mass. He explained, “There will be pent-up demand for units when the project is done in three years.”

Under Wolkoff, the 90-year old structure has served as a factory for record player needles and garment manufacturing in addition to an artists’ showcase. A garment factory currently occupies two floors. The facility formerly housed studios for 90 artists who paid subsidized rent. But after an accident involving the collapse of cement staircase in 2009, the Department of Buildings ordered the artists to vacate unless the owner made repairs.

Though he has allowed Five Pointz to continue as a space for street art for over ten years, Wolkoff believes that the neighborhood will welcome new development. He said, “To some people, it’s an eyesore. I like it, but you have many more people who are happy with the change.” But Steven Kanellos, co-owner of Court Square Diner across the street disagreed. “It’s only a few in the minority who feel that way, the older people. If you go around and ask, most people like it.”

The announcement last month spurred an outpouring of press and calls for preserving Five Pointz. Cohen has received messages of support from around the world, and fans are circulating an online petition that has almost 3,000 signatures, including singer Joss Stone’s. Manuel DiRita, a graffiti artist from Venice, first heard of Five Pointz in 2002. “It’s an honor to paint here,” he remarked. Both Wolkoff and Cohen expect development to be approximately two years away. “The world has begun to say how it feels about this place,” Cohen said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Katherine Fung