The enigma of the ‘lost coast of Queens’

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In a 2017 piece titled, “Discovering the Lost Coast of Queens,” the New York Times profiled several of the developing residential building projects along the Astoria-area East River waterfront. The southern-most of those projects, Alma Realty’s 34-46 Vernon Boulevard, was just getting the “finishing touches,” the Times reported then. The double-headed, 17-story, 404-unit development squeezed between a Ravenswood power plant sub-generator and the film and TV warehouse by Rainy Park, was expected to be leasing, the Times had reported, by the fall of 2017. More than two years and a pandemic since that projected date, the yet-to-open set of towers sits behind a wall of deteriorated construction signs and has become a neighborhood enigma.

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“It is going to open,” an unidentified voice told me, this last July 6, when I called Alma. The building is “still in the process of construction,” the voice said. I asked if there was a delay. “No delay,” the voice said. I was transferred, as usual – I’ve called several times before the Covid-19 pandemic – to a line that went to voicemail.

One might use the pandemic as an explanation, but the state didn’t include non-essential construction in its stop-work order until April, and then didn’t, in actuality, fully include non-essential construction until late May. Besides, a document displayed at the site shows Alma was granted an essential business permit to proceed in April. In any case, these last few months don’t count for the five-plus years since construction began.

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Five-plus years is almost the same amount of time I’ve lived here, within a few blocks of the site. I’ve watched the building unfold slowly, sometimes having conversations with neighbors or roommates who were confused about the endless construction site/empty building by Rainy Park. One local business owner who’d set up shop after Alma’s construction began, was waiting for the building to open, counting on those hundreds of new potential customers. After the pandemic set in, that person has sold her business, a new cashier told me. Another neighbor is more weary, not looking forward to the influx of high-income tenants. And some people just ask me, because I’m a journalist, if I’ve figured out yet what the deal is with that huge empty building that’s been sitting there more than five years.

To put five-plus years in perspective, 432 Park Avenue, the stick-like super-tower known as the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere, just across the East River, took about three years to build. Skyline Tower, the Long Island City residential scraper known as the tallest building in New York outside Manhattan, is expected (New York YIMBY reported on March 30) to be finished by the end of this year, after construction began in late 2017, making work possibly only three years. Vernon Tower, one of the buildings profiled in the Times piece, seems to have been built in about three years. A two-decade analysis in 2018 by real estate site, The Real Deal, found, with the exception of hotels, the median duration of building construction in New York City to be about three years.

The Real Deal also reported, in 2016, that Alma bought the land at 34-46 Vernon Boulevard in 2001. Records show the company filed for excavation and foundation work in 2008. TRD reported in 2010 that the project, then called Alma Towers, had been “beset by construction snags and recession-related issues.” An architect told the outlet that during the economic crisis, rising steel prices necessitated a redesign, pushing the work back to 2012. Work kicked off in the fall of 2014, YIMBY had reported, bringing the site up to 13 or 14 stories by June 2015. The signage at that time projected a completion date of spring 2016.

From what I can tell, the usual real estate outlets stopped reporting on the project except for the Times’ real estate section with its “Lost Coast” piece, which also used the phrase “gold coast.” One of the developments mentioned, Alma’s other, more high-profile project – a five-building, 1,700 unit megaproject – Astoria Cove, was slated for a site by the Astoria Houses on the northern edge of the Halletts Point peninsula, next to the Hallets Point megaproject. After facing pressure from affordable housing advocates, organized labor and then-Borough President Melinda Katz, the Astoria Cove zoning proposal passed the City Council in late 2014, becoming the first development to fall under Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning program, with 27 percent of the units below market rate. Alma never broke ground on the project, which was, in 2016, attributed to the expiration of state tax abatement program 421-a. The company put the site on the market, temporarily. In a 2019 post-mortem of sorts, Politico New York later said the project “didn’t actually have the correct breakdown of low-income units to qualify for the new version of [the 421-a] abatement.” The Politico piece ultimately portrays Alma as possibly an inept, minor developer in over its head.

The print version of the Times’ piece was titled, “The Lost Coast of Queens,” which suggests the Astoria-area waterfront had been known in the past. Maybe the point was developers had forgotten about it since the Shore Towers were built in 1990 or since East River Tower was built in 2007. The online article included the word, “Discovering,” suggesting, perhaps, developers had been unaware that desirable, as in convenient or scenic, waterfront existed north the Gantry Plaza State Park. The piece, apparently contradicting those notions, describes Alma as “a family-run firm that has invested in the area for decades.” That’s because Alma is part of the area. The company, which has properties all around the Tri-state area and more than a dozen branch offices, has its headquarters about 15 blocks away, or a 20 minute walk, from 34-46 Vernon Boulevard, at 31-10 37th Avenue in the Dutch Kills section of Long Island City. Alma’s founder, Efstathios Valiotis, came to the U.S. from Greece, a TRD profile says, in 1972. LIC-based Greek-American newspaper the National Herald toured Alma’s headquarters in 2017, describing Alma as “one, if not the only one, of the few expatriate companies from the concierge up to the supervisors in complex construction who speak Greek.”

The National Herald, which appears to have mixed up the Citigroup Building with Citicorp Center, misdating the arrival of the former by at least 10 years, and may have exaggerated Alma’s stock in the emerging waterfront (Astoria Cove and 34-46 Vernon Boulevard together would have surpassed Halletts Point by only about 100 units), was given a tour of 34-46 Vernon Boulevard. The Herald reported, back then in 2017, that the “apartments are functional,” set with washer-dryers and balconies, though I’m not sure the balconies were finished. The piece, which doesn’t get into delays or politics, is a warm portrait of Valiotis and his daughter, the company CEO Sophia Valiotis, involving a photo of them in an office, behind them a stack of cases of Crystal Geyser sparkling water. The short TRD profile of Efstathios (or Steve) Valiotis includes an alleged 1990s European bank-corruption scheme. In 2015, Politico New York reported, tenants rights group Stabilizing NYC included Alma on its offender list. The group found seven Alma buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan with reports of tenant harassment, disrepair and vermin. Con Edison was suing Alma for stolen gas. In 2016, then-Public Advocate Leticia James listed Valiotis as the number three worst landlord in New York City for racking up 1,141 total violations. Valiotis is not on Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ current list. As of this post, Department of Buildings records show the project at 34-46 Vernon Boulevard has racked up 97 violations.

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#BlackLivesMatter protests across Queens

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Protesters in Hollis (Screengrab of video by QNS reporter Dean Moses)

Demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd by a white cop in Minneapolis as well as other police killings of black Americans such as Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Tony McDade in Tallahassee, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and others have been reported across Queens in neighborhoods including Astoria, Queensbridge, Sunnyside, Jackson Heights, Flushing, Jamaica, Hollis, Whitestone, Bayside, Fresh Meadows and Far Rockaway.

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Protesters on Queens Blvd (Photo credit: Twitter user @lockebox2)

“In #sunnyside queens, we started with a modest crowd—I think it snowballed as we passed so many supportive folks on the street who joined us #BlackLivesMatternyc” one of the activists tweeted yesterday. Photos show activists on 43rd Street, under the 7 Train and on Queens Boulevard where many took a knee.

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Queensbridge (Credit: IG user morgan_s)

As this was posted Friday night, a vigil honoring Breonna Taylor’s birthday was held at Queensbridge Park. A crowd filled the park for a vigil on Wednesday. A simultaneous demonstration happened across the water on Roosevelt Island. By Thursday night, someone on Twitter said, cops were arresting people for being outside at Queensbridge. “COVID-19 response is militarized in the hood,” @UpFromTheCracks tweeted.

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Photo credit: Twitter user @CRGuarino

Several hundred people rallied and held vigil at Astoria Park on Monday. On Tuesday, protesters also rallied on 30th Avenue and marched down Steinway Street. A simultaneous demonstration was also happening in Bayside.

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Photo credit: Twitter user @undercatpro

Last Saturday, hundreds in Jackson Heights rallied at Diversity Plaza, marched down Northern Boulevard and took a knee outside the police station near Junction Boulevard. On Sunday, protesters marched by the Unisphere in Corona Park, as seen in an AP photo. That night back in Jackson Heights, a vigil was held at Travers Park.

On Wednesday, the Queens Post reported, protesters led by Make the Road New York marched to Assembly Member Michael DenDekker’s office in East Elmhurst. The group says DenDekker, who co-sponsored a repeal of a law that keeps police records confidential, can push harder for police reforms, and that he has only donated a portion of the campaign money he had taken from police PACs.

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Jamaica (screengrab of vid by Twitter user @NubianPhoenixx)

In Jamaica, protesters said “thank you” to the local precinct commanding officer when he joined them in taking a knee on Jamaica Avenue and Parsons Boulevard where someone read aloud names of various black people killed by police. A few hundred people also rallied in Hollis, where the police disclosure bill was also pushed for, on Wednesday.

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Far Rockaway (Screengrab of vid by @TheeeUgly)

“They said Far Rock was gonna riot, loot and violate. Look at this, nothing but unity and peaceful protest in our hood,” Twitter user @TheTruthSerg_ said of the march and rally in Far Rockaway on Tuesday.

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Whitestone (Twitter user @sassyveeee)

In Whitestone on Monday, a white man, driving by a BLM protest on the Cross Island Parkway overpass on Clintonville Street, yelled out, “Wrong neighborhood, bitch.” A protester yelled back at him, “Fuck you!” He pulled over, got out of his car and chased one of the protesters with a bizarre-looking object, then threatened the others. He was later arrested, it was reported. A video of the scene was captured on social media.

It was reported more than 100 people protested on the corners of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing Tuesday night. One unexplained video on Twitter shows a whole bunch of cops attacking someone.

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Seen in this photo left to right: State Sen. Jessica Ramos, Borough President Melinda Katz, State Sen. John Liu, State Rep. Alicia Hyndman, City Council Member Donovan Richards and U.S. Rep. Grace Meng. (Screengrab of Twitter vid by QNS reporter Angélica M. Acevedo.

Yesterday afternoon, a march took off from Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows to Borough Hall, where various officials such as City Council Member Donovan Richards spoke out. Richards, chair of the public safety committee, also spoke out at the rallies in Sunnyside and Far Rockaway and possibly others. He is running for borough president. At some point, the march passed by Sean Bell Way.

Speaker Corey Johnson comes to Astoria

Astoria City Councilman Costa Constantinides, middle, Speaker Corey Johnson, right.

The first thing City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wanted the crowd to know was that he is openly HIV positive and has been sober for nine years. The first thing Council Member Costa Constantinides wanted us to know was that the school we were in, P.S. 171, is getting solar panels that he allocated from the city budget.

Unlike the mayor’s town hall I went to in LIC last year, there wasn’t a line outside when I got there. I was only 15 minutes early but the auditorium did fill up eventually. Someone asked if I RSVP’d, and I wondered who actually does that.

Constantinides listed funds he brought to Mount Sainai Hospital and the library and other things which I didn’t write down. He said Johnson is not just a colleague but “really is my friend.” CoJo in return said Constantinides is “a leader who really gets it.” He said his colleague, chair of the environmental committee, brought $26 million to west of 21st Street, including the $2.5 million for the solar panels.

There was one big drama that took up a lot of the outset of the forum, which came from tenants of the Acropolis Gardens, a large condo building up on Ditmars Boulevard and 33rd Street. The 600-plus unit building is facing foreclosure as of last Monday after its board missed a payment. Continue reading “Speaker Corey Johnson comes to Astoria”

HomeMark 99¢ strip on 31st Street to become “Astoria Artisan Food Hall”

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The Commercial Observer reports that the low-key strip on 31st Street and 35th Avenue with HomeMark 99¢ on the corner is set to be torn down and replaced with an “Astoria Artisan Food Hall.” Developer Vass Stevens Group bought the strip at 34-39 31st Street last October and already got rid of the tenants and demolished the interiors, apparently. It plans to divide the building into eight storefronts and aims to include, says the Observer, “a coffee roaster, a microbrewery, a specialty dessert bakery and an Asian concept.” There was also mention of “ethnic Hispanic concepts… Fitness concepts, performance groups and creative tenants.”  Continue reading “HomeMark 99¢ strip on 31st Street to become “Astoria Artisan Food Hall””

N/W stations reopen, Hunters Point South Park Phase 2: One sweet week of summer

The N/W stations at 36th and 30th avenues have opened, along with Hunters Point South Park Phase 2, making for one, (almost) perfect week of summer, before the Broadway and 39th Avenue stations shut down on July 2 for eight months. As noted elsewhere, the stations still don’t have elevators. The idea of a shuttle to elevator-stations has been floated. 

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I haven’t seen the 30th Ave station yet (or taken the train at either) but did see the funky glass walls at the 36th Ave station. Not sure what they were going for or who designed this.

Continue reading “N/W stations reopen, Hunters Point South Park Phase 2: One sweet week of summer”

A few notes

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  • A funeral was held at Most Precious Blood Church for the baby that was found in a garbage can at Dutch Kills Playground. The baby was given the name, Dutch James Hope. 
  • Flor de Azalea Cafe on 34th Avenue and 9th Street in Ravenswood is hosting an open mic on Saturday, April 28 from from 5-7pm.
  • The Steinway Astoria Partnership is hosting the International Culture Fest on Steinway Street on Sunday, April 29 from 12-5pm.
  • We Heart Astoria is throwing a party, which celebrates local businesses, with tickets starting at $45 on Thursday, April 26.
  • Also April 26, from 7-9pm the Boundless Tales Reading Series is on at the Local NYC in Long Island City. It’s free.
  • Suraj Patel gets a write-up in student paper, Washington Square News, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets featured in Salon.
  • New York YIMBY has renderings for a residential project on 44th Drive in Hunters Point.
  • There are free English language classes going on at the Jacob Riis Settlement. 

A call for a permanent shuttle on 31st Street

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Broadway Station of the N/W line at 31st Street.

With some good news for the elevated N/W line in Astoria comes a new idea. Last Wednesday the MTA presented Community Board 1’s transportation committee with a plan to build much-called for elevators at the Astoria Boulevard station. Today, the board voted unanimously to send a letter (posted below) to NYC Transit proposing a permanent shuttle along 31st Street to bring even more accessibility along the whole elevated line. Anyone who needs an elevator would be able to take the two-way shuttle to Astoria Boulevard or down to the Queens Plaza station for the E, M, or R trains. Thirty First Street is currently served by the Q102 bus between 30th Avenue and Queens Plaza (map PDF).

Continue reading “A call for a permanent shuttle on 31st Street”

Constantinides and JVB both eyeing BP seat (prolly)

The Astoria Post reports that City Councilman Costa Constantinides is probably eyeing the Queens borough president seat for 2021 when Melinda Katz vacates. Constantinides, who is serving his final term as council-member, held a fundraiser with a maximum donation of $3,850, the top limit allowed for borough president. A flyer for the fundraiser reads, “I hope I can count on you as we expand upon our legacy and fight for higher office after my current term ends.” If true, this makes the second city council member from Western Queens eying the beep race. It was revealed in February that Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer formed a Queens Borough President exploratory committee.

H/T Astoria Post

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Participatory budgeting takes off in LIC & Astoria

Participatory budgeting, where council district constituents get to vote on how to spend a million bucks, starts today in districts 26 (Long Island City, Sunnyside and Woodside) and 22 (Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside too).

In Astoria, items up for a vote include a hydroponic science lab at LIC High School, lighting upgrades at Astoria Houses Community Center, a tool shed at Two Coves Community Garden and road surfacing.

In LIC, items include bus countdown clocks, trees, a gym at Queensbridge Park, a soil science lab at Ravenswood Houses, tech upgrades at P.S. 112 in Dutch Kills and other schools and playground renovations at P.S. 111 in Ravenswood.

A few notes:

  • That Ravenswood survey reported about here in Corner, will be online from April 4 through 30, Times Ledger reports.
  • State Senator Aravella Simotas’ legislation on preserving rape kits made it into the 2019 state budget.
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running against Rep. Joe Crowley in the Midterm primary, wants to end ICE.
  • Nas’ chicken and waffles joint will open in Hunters Point Monday with a private back room for parties.
  • A $33.3 million deal was made to put up a seven story, 200-unit, mixed-use building in Dutch Kills at 37-11 30th Street, Real Estate Weekly reports.

    “Dutch Kills, which sits just south of Astoria, has not seen the same level of investments as other sections of Long Island City, such as Hunters Point, Court Square and the area around Queensborough Plaza. Before Avenue and Slate bought the 37-11 30th Street, the only high-end housing project in the area was the Lightstone Group’s ARC complex, which is located two blocks to the south.”

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney spoke about the U.S. Census citizenship question, militarizing the border and gun legislation on Thirteen. Maloney_Thirteen_screengrab
  • Queensbridge is getting new roofs.
  • LIC Reading Series will host its 3rd year anniversary event on April 10.
  • Thrillist lists Petey’s Burger in the top 31 burger joints in America.
  • A bunch of storefronts up by the Ditmars Boulevard station will be demolished to make way for a Target, Astoria Post reports.

Simotas: No to Census citizenship question

Sometimes I wonder if Astoria (not Jackson Heights) is actually the most diverse neighborhood in the United States. In any case, it’s diverse for sure and has a lot of immigrants. And maybe that makes State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas suited for fighting the U.S. Commerce Department’s decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census

In a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Simotas writes:

“As a representative of a diverse community in New York that is home to a large population of immigrants, I am deeply concerned that a citizenship question would deter many of my constituents from participating in the census and prevent them from receiving critically needed resources over the next decade.”

I’m not sure where other Queens lawmakers are on this. Mayor Bill Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman protested the concept in February. Googling the World’s Borough on the issue, I found a quote from Queens College professor Andrew Beveridge, who told the Washington Post the citizenship question would shift representation to Republican districts. “All of the districts with non-citizens in them and all of the districts with kids in them would have less representation.” 

Simotas argues in her letter that most people in her district live in “hard-to-count” neighborhoods and only 68.4% of households returned their questionnaires for the 2010 census.

Secretary Ross has argues it will be worthwhile. “The citizenship data provided to DOJ will be more accurate with the question than without it, which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond,” Ross said, The Hill reported. 

Simotas argues that her district, with it’s history of already low questionnaire turnout, will be worse off. “With heightened fears of immigration enforcement and anxieties over the confidentiality of census data, it will be even more challenging to collect and complete, accurate information.” 

You can read Simotas’ full letter here (warning PDF).