The enigma of the ‘lost coast of Queens’

Alma_broadshot_Vernonclose

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.

Alma-Workinprogress

“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.

Alma_chain

Alma_Permit_socialdistancing2020_closer

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.

Alma-safetytraining

Ben Carson tours QB

 

QBen

Ben Carson, one of the most interesting characters in the story of the 2016 presidential election and who is now Pres. Trump’s head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), visited a boiler and the apartment of Geraldine Harvey at the NYCHA Queensbridge Houses yesterday. He asked Harvey if NYCHA was doing a good job responding to her concerns, and, writes the New York Daily News, she said the managers are “fairly responsive.” 

Carson was in town to meet with Mayor de Blasio about NYCHA, one month after a federal judge rejected an agreement between City Hall, NYCHA, HUD and the Manhattan U.S. attorney to have a federal monitor oversee the city’s public housing system of more than 400,000 people. The judge compared the problems at NYCHA to “the biblical plagues of Egypt.” Carson recently gave NYCHA until January 31 to come up with an action plan to address the problems with, reports the Wall Street Journal, “management, lead paint, mold, lack of heat, broken elevators and vermin issues,” which sounds like lyrics from “The Message.” 

(I didn’t have my own photo of QB on hand and my Google Maps street view wasn’t working so I used a Wikipedia pic for QB, but if you want to see my less serious concoction, look below.)

Coverage: WSJ, NYDN

Continue reading “Ben Carson tours QB”

Amazon to come to Anable Basin

The Anable Basin was controversial even before Amazon said it would show up. Less than a year ago, City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, other local pols and various LIC activists were there to protest a plan to turn the strip at 44th Drive at the waterfront into a development that would somehow involve residential and industrial uses altogether. Well — no one cares about that anymore, because Amazon is coming, which is apparently the biggest business story in a while and it’s down the street from my apartment. A memorandum of understanding shows where Amazon plans to set up shop for part of it’s HQ2, and it’s the same area, just south of Con Edison. JVB and Senator Michael Gianaris were initially down with Amazon coming to LIC, but held a protest at the site today saying this was a huge $3 billion giveaway that won’t involve any public review. The mayor says the 25,000 jobs or more promised over a decade is unprecedented and the governor says the return on investment would be nine to one.  Continue reading “Amazon to come to Anable Basin”

Comptroller comes to LIC to take on City Hall

stringer3

A great grandfather at the front of the line for the microphone told Comptroller Scott Stringer he’s sick of bridges and streets getting named after politicians. Stringer said he admitted he fantasized of one day telling his son that “Stringerway” was once called “Broadway.” 

Stringer, an almost-2013 candidate for mayor and thought-to-be 2021 mayoral hopeful, had the jokes at his Long Island City town hall at the CUNY School of Law. When one person insisted that City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer has his eyes set on being mayor, Stringer said, don’t you hate people who want to be mayor? 

Stringer wasn’t just here to understand the needs of one region of Queens. He was here to make allies in his fight against City Hall – and probably for it. He knew that many of the complaints would be about housing and development. That’s everywhere, but in LIC, the towers are shooting up around us into the sky and the people are anxious about school space, train space, park space and sewage. Stringer is positioned as a high-level politician with views juxtaposed to the mayor’s housing strategy, setting himself as a more progressive alternative. 

“I don’t believe that this is how we should build our city,” he said in reference to Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for economic development. “We’ve got to change the system. And the way we’re building our city is, we’re doing it backwards.”   Continue reading “Comptroller comes to LIC to take on City Hall”

City moving forward on BQX

The de Blasio administration announced today it will move forward with the Brooklyn Queens Connector, the “BQX,” upon release of an overdue feasibility study (PDF). The press release puts the cost at $2.73 billion, a bit up from the initial $2.5 billion the mayor initially put out there. Also, this train is not planned to reach Sunset Park anymore, but will only extend to Red Hook. This announcement follows the mayor’s recent statements that without federal aid from the Trump administration the East River trolly is dead. But, doesn’t it often appear that way? 

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 5.52.07 PM.png

Some important info from the press release: 

Community stakeholders will have opportunities to provide input as the proposal advances to the environmental review and advanced design stages… The environmental impact study process will commence this winter, followed by ULURP in 2020. Construction is expected to begin in 2024 and end in 2029.

More at NYT.

NY Post: BQX study cost $7 million

Source: Friends of BQX website

The New York Post reported last night that the delayed study for the Brooklyn Queens Connector, the waterfront light-rail concept pushed by the De Blasio admin and a nonprofit group, has already racked up at least $7 million in cost.

The study was slated to wrap up last fall but has met setbacks. The Post didn’t explain exactly what accounted for the cost and didn’t compare the cost to other similar studies.

BDB: BQX is still on

BQX_QueensPlaza_FriendsRendering
Screengrab of a rendering of the BQX at Queens Plaza from http://www.bqx.nyc/#gallery

Mayor Bill de Blasio slammed the New York Daily News today for reporting that he “may ditch” the BQX streetcar proposal. The News had reported on a comment by Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for economic development, that implied that if the streetcar turns out to not be self-funding, then the city might have to consider a different use of capital funds. This is the quote the News reported this week and I posted on Corner (and was posted all over the place):

“Assuming that it does not pay for itself… then we have to decide whether or not this is the right use of capital money for a transportation project.”

I never took that to mean De Blasio is backing off the BQX, and I don’t think the News reported it that way. (Disclosure: I interned for the News in 2013). You can read the quote as many times as I did. This is what De Blasio told a caller (Nick from Astoria, at 16 minutes in) on The Brian Lehrer Show segment, “Ask the Mayor” (Disclosure: I work for Brian Lehrer in a different capacity) asking for clarification on his commitment:

“This is an instance where a real disservice has been done by the media, specifically the Daily News, in taking comments that presented no change in our position whatsoever and trying to reflect something entirely different… I don’t understand how a journalist does that. I don’t understand how a journalist goes out of their way to misrepresent the facts, and I’ve seen it way too often lately at the Daily News.”

“My deputy mayor spoke about the complexities of a major undertaking like this. But it’s one we believe is going to be very, very valuable for what’s one of the single biggest growth areas and population centers of the entire city of New York, the East River Waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens. This is increasingly the core of New York City and we think the BQX is going to be a high impact investment in the community. And also because I think it’s going to be part of positive development of housing, affordable housing, job creation, that’s part of why it interacts very positively with what we’re trying to do overall to help those communities strengthen. It’s going to serve 40,000 public housing residents in many communities that are underserved by mass transit. But it’s a big, complicated endeavor and it’s certainly going to require some federal support as well, which is something I’m very hopeful about particularly because of the presence of Senator Schumer in the Senate, the roll he plays. We’re moving forward but we have to get the exact details right and we’re going to have a plan…”

“We must have more mass transit and it’s not going to be created by the MTA on the scale we need.”

So the point of the story is BDB is still committed to the BQX, regardless of what Alicia Glen said.