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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On the edge of the epicenter

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Death is all around us, and everyone is jogging.

On every temperate day during this pandemic, Vernon Boulevard, the waterfront strip with its parks and protected bikeway, is a continuous stream of joggers and bicyclists, most of them now wearing masks, as ambulances frequently go blaring by. Here on the western edge of Western Queens, we are so close to the epicenter of the epicenter, but not quite of it.

Gothamist-WNYC put out a map yesterday showing how stark a difference there is between North-Central Queens and the LIC-Astoria area. The map, comparing zip codes by number of cases per capita, shows the biggest, darkest shaded area abutting right against one of the lightest shaded areas. A similar map from the New York Times on April 1, showed the hardest hit zip code with Coronavirus cases per capita was 11370 in Jackson Heights, followed by 11369 in… Corona.

“The biggest hot spots included communities in the South Bronx and western Queens,” that Times article read. From a distance, the specificity might not matter. In late March The City published a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene list ranking “West Queens” as one of the “Neighborhoods” with the most flu-related ER visits.

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Areas with flu-related ER visits in late March, top of a list provided by the Dep. of Health and Mental Hygiene, as hyperlinked to in The City.

One reasonable interpretation for the divide is that Elmhurst Hospital bares the weight of serving a vast region of neighborhoods, including Corona, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Woodside. Queens Courier explains the history of how hospital closures 11 years ago led to the overburdening of Elmhurst Hospital. Astoria and LIC, by contrast, has Mount Sinai Queens, which is not without its own frequent Covid-related intake, having built a triage tent. And Astoria’s city council member, Costa Constantinides, has been self-quarantining with the virus, and he tweeted this week that his wife has been hospitalized and “hasn’t been aware enough to speak.”

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But I’ll nod to other potential factors for the steep divide, such as racial disparities that leave the “Hispanic” community (category the state uses; I don’t know where this leaves the substantial Brazilian community here – in the black and white categories probably) making up the highest proportion of Covid-deaths, at 34% in the city, followed by the black community at 28%, white people at 27% and Asians at 7%. NPR suggests one explanation for this, citing an unrelated federal report, noting that “a significantly smaller percentage of Latino and black workers reported enjoying the flexibility to work remotely than their white and Asian counterparts.”

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The state tracks mortality rates, not cases altogether, by race and ethnicity, the Times notes, adding that, “health care workers and community leaders say it is indisputable that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the Hispanic day laborers, restaurant workers and cleaners who make up the largest share of the population in an area often celebrated as one of the most diverse places on earth.”

The “enemy” is density, the Times told us recently, to the chagrin of urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti, who is profiting off planning a high-rise district in the area. Comparing North Central Queens to LIC-Astoria might be extremely helpful for everyone, I would think, because the density, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the same. Both areas have, a probably similar, mix of duplex-type row houses and mid-rise apartment buildings, along with some pedestrian-busy streets like Steinway Street and Roosevelt Avenue. There’s an idea that North Central Queens has more overcrowding within households, leading to more cases, but that seems like a theoretical explanation for now. The AP reports:

“The areas of New York that have a larger share of households with people over 65 had higher rates of confirmed cases per 1,000 people, the AP found. But other demographic variables – from high household incomes to large shares of foreign-born populations to areas with large numbers of overcrowded housing units – saw no significant link to COVID-19 case trends.”

Let’s compare the regions in some other ways. Of the population of Community Board 1, home to Astoria and upper LIC, 13% of the population is 65 or older, one percent higher than in both CB3, home of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Corona and CB4, the area of south Corona and Elmhurst. In CB1, 34% of the population is rent burdened. In CB3, 53% of the population is rent burdened. The rent burdened population is at 55% in CB4. The poverty rate in CB1 is 18%; the rate is at 24% and 26% in CB3 and CB4 respectively.

Bernie and AOC are coming to Queensbridge Park

Senator Bernie Sanders, when asked last night at the Democratic Primary debate about his recent heart attack, announced he would be holding a rally in Queens this weekend. I wondered where, exactly.

The democratic socialist candidate, along with our neighboring local congress member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will be rallying at Queensbridge Park on Saturday. AOC, unsurprisingly will endorse the senator. 

….Also, it might go without saying there are some obvious, I think, implications here about holding a rally at Queensbridge, which played out as a major factor in the local battles against the Amazon deal. 

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”