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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NYT: City “Renewal” program failed at P.S. 111 and other notes…

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The New York Times highlighted P.S. 111 in upper Long Island City this week as a school Mayor de Blasio’s “Renewal” program has failed to help. The program, launched in 2014, invested millions in the city’s 94 poorest schools. The Times reports that non-public internal documents said in as early as December 2015 that a third of those schools would not likely meet the program’s goals. 

P.S. 111, or the Jacob Blackwell School, between 13th and 21st streets, 38th and 37th avenues, served as the featured school in the story. Only 8 percent of students passed the state’s math exam this year, fewer than before Renewal. Officials considered closing P.S. 111 the last few years. A memo noted that Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, education committee chair, would likely fight the closure. The Times notes city data reports the school is safer than it was when the current principal, Dionne Jaggon, took over in 2014. (Read piece here). 

Other notes…
Continue reading “NYT: City “Renewal” program failed at P.S. 111 and other notes…”

Seven story mixed-use building slated for deep Dutch Kills

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A two story, two family home built in 1915 is slated to be demolished in way of a seven story mixed-use building at 33-10 38th Avenue, down near Astoria Seafood and the Paper Factory Hotel.  The building will have 20, most likely rental apartments, and some sort of community facility, New York YIMBY reported recently.  Continue reading “Seven story mixed-use building slated for deep Dutch Kills”

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”

City announces Sunnyside Yards planning team, hears hell from JVB, Nolan

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The city is officially moving forward on developing a neighborhood over the Sunnyside Yards by launching a master planning process this summer. The Economic Development Corporation announced today that Alicia Glen, deputy mayor of economic development and Anthony Coscia, chairman of Amtrak, which owns most of the space, signed a letter of intent to collaborate on the plan. The EDC’s announcement confirms Crain’s New York Business’ March 29 report that urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti will be heading the master plan team. But more people are involved! Cali Williams, an EDC vice president for the last decade, now has the title: director of Sunnyside Yard. And a steering committee headed by Elizabeth Lusskin, president of the Long Island City Partnership and Sharon Greenberger, head of the YMCA for Greater New York (what?) will be consulting on the plan. But wait… what about elected officials who don’t want this to happen? 

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose district spans both the LIC and Sunnyside sides of the yards, has been vocal against this project. How the EDC and mayor’s office will be able to push this ahead without the support from the 26th city council rep, I’m really not sure. The yards would have to be rezoned to allow residential development and super tall buildings, something the council member would have to approve. Sunnyside Post reported shortly after the EDC’s announcement today that JVB and State Rep. Catherine Nolan, who also opposes the plan, complained the city went around them on this. Well of course. 

Continue reading “City announces Sunnyside Yards planning team, hears hell from JVB, Nolan”

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.

LIC High School football field site for protest action

I think we’ve all tried one time or another to walk through the crowds of teenagers on the sidewalk along Broadway at Long Island City High School. Even at the far west end, it’s a busy road down there, so maybe that’s why during the nationwide and citywide student walkout against gun violence yesterday, LIC High School students spent their 17 minutes of protest on the football field.

A few notes:

  • A federal crackdown on the MTA for failing to comply with disability standards for a subway renovation in the Bronx has created an alliance between Trump-appointee U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman and Democrats such as State Sen. Michael Gianaris. “The MTA’s continued emphasis on style over substance wastes scarce resources, hurts transit riders, and stunts our economy while its failed Enhanced Station Initiative continues to cosmetically renovate stations without improving service or accessibility,” Gianaris said, reports City and State. There has been outcry in Astoria as renovations on the N/W line don’t include elevators.
  • The MTA plans to prepare Long Island City’s transit for the 2019 L-train shutdown by removing the airport-type automated walkway and widening and adding stairways at the Court Square hub and creating a free transfer between the 23-Ely Ave G and Hunters Point Ave 7 stops as Vice explains. In its Queens angle of the shutdown, the piece delves into the concerns people in Queens are having.

    “The members appeared frustrated, not just with what the shutdown could wrought, but what this area of New York City will face in the coming years. According to severalreports, Long Island City has witnessed the most apartment construction in America since 2010, with thousands of additional units in the works. If there’s no infrastructure in place to handle the shutdown, what does that mean for the entire region’s future?”

Continue reading “LIC High School football field site for protest action”

TV pilot filmed at Sixteen Oaks Grove

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A TV film crew at 16 Oaks Grove, the triangle park on 21st St. and 37th Ave.

A TV crew filmed a pilot today at Sixteen Oaks Grove, the usually desolate tree-lined park on 21st Street and 37th Avenue across from a string of auto-body shops. A crew member on the periphery told me the show was so-far untitled. A man knocking on a film-set trailer door on 36th Avenue told me he was filming two pilots in the area for NBC but not Get Christie Love, an ABC project set for filming on 36th Ave tonight and tomorrow.