Whatever happened to the city’s largest vacant lots?

Two years after an audit flagged 1,000 housing-agency parcels, the 10 largest have not a single home built

New York /
Jan.January 15, 2020 03:20 PM
Clockwise from top left: 179 Beach 38th Street (Far Rockaway), 200 Beach 54th Street (Far Rockaway), 691 Zerega Avenue (Bronx), Jefferson Field at 12506 Flatlands Avenue  (East New York), 598 Beach 43rd Street (Far Rockaway), 114-200 Beach 36th Street (Far Rockaway) and 201 Beach 60th Street (Far Rockaway) (Credit: iStock, Google Maps)

Clockwise from top left: 179 Beach 38th Street (Far Rockaway), 200 Beach 54th Street (Far Rockaway), 691 Zerega Avenue (Bronx), Jefferson Field at 12506 Flatlands Avenue (East New York), 598 Beach 43rd Street (Far Rockaway), 114-200 Beach 36th Street (Far Rockaway) and 201 Beach 60th Street (Far Rockaway) (Credit: iStock, Google Maps)

New York has a housing shortage, yet no shortage of vacant lots. The city cannot compel development on private parcels, but what about all the empty sites belonging to its primary housing agency?

That’s what the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, was thinking when he published a report in 2016 highlighting the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s 1,100 unbuilt plots. He followed up in 2018 with an audit that found more than a thousand still lacked housing.

“HPD is moving at a glacial pace in developing that land,” the audit declared, noting that the agency missed its targets to develop or transfer almost 80 percent of the properties under its jurisdiction. “At the rate established in the past two years, it will take HPD approximately 17 years to transfer all 1,007 lots either for development or to another agency.”

At the time of the initial report, HPD responded that about 310 of the sites had “major development challenges,” such as infrastructure issues or flood-zone designations. Some of the largest were on Beach Avenue in Far Rockaway. A developer was picked to build there in 2005, but the financial crisis of 2008 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 stymied progress.

Nearly two years after the second audit, The Real Deal checked on the 10 largest lots it flagged. Three have been transferred to other city departments and seven are in some stage of development, an HPD spokesperson said. Though at least two of the lots appear to be part of ongoing projects, Department of Buildings records show not a single home has been built on any of them. HPD declined to provide details or a timeline for those projects.

Here’s what we found.

1. The largest parcel is nearly 1.7 million square feet aligned with Hunter’s Point South Park along Queens’ southern waterfront. The oblong plot was officially handed over to the Department of Parks and Recreation in October 2018. The second phase of the park, whose construction was led by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, opened in June 2018; the first phase opened five years prior. The waterfront recreation space marked a transformation of some 15 acres of post-industrial land.

2. Along Vandalia Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn, is nearly 1.5 million square feet that HPD is in the process of developing, according to the spokesperson. No applications have been filed with the Department of Buildings for this particular lot, an indication that nothing has been built. It seems, however, to be part of the multi-phase redevelopment of the Fresh Creek Urban Renewal Area in Spring Creek, which also added a retail center to the site. This lot appears to be linked to the fifth phase of the project, which is in public review.

3. A lot at 201 Beach 60th Street, near Rockaway Beach Boulevard, in Far Rockaway measures just over 1.3 million square feet. Located in a flood zone, it is still under HPD’s jurisdiction, but the agency is looking at other uses for it, as it appears to be part of a street, the spokesperson said.

4. An odd lot — shaped almost like the letter Z — near Erskine Street in East New York spans nearly 1.3 million square feet. It too is scheduled for housing, according to the HPD spokesperson, and public records show the lot was also part of the Fresh Creek Urban Renewal Plan. The unusual contours of the lot appear to wrap around the Brooklyn Developmental Center at 888 Fountain Avenue and the Gateway Center stores.

5. Tagged as “Vacant Land – Miscellaneous” is a nearly 485,000-square-foot site at 691 Zerega Avenue in the Bronx. Industrial and not suitable for development, according to HPD, the site has been used by the Department of Sanitation for 25 years to store rock salt. The agency plans a permanent salt shed there, a department spokesperson said. On Dec. 20 HPD transferred a portion of the land to Sanitation, which now controls the entire site, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

6. In East New York, Brooklyn, 12506 Flatlands Avenue is a sports venue called Jefferson Field and operated by the city’s Department of Education, according to HPD, though it is not clear when it was transferred. It spans just over 354,000 square feet. The school system did not return a request for comment.

7. A nearly 310,000-square-foot lot at 179 Beach 38th Street in Far Rockaway, near Edgemere Avenue, is on track to be a housing development, according to HPD. The parcel is zoned for commercial or residential use. No building permits have been sought.

8. Near the waterfront is a 235,600-square-foot, irregularly-shaped parcel at 598 Beach 43rd Street, also in Far Rockaway. That, too, is under evaluation for development, according to HPD.

9. Again in Far Rockaway is 200 Beach 54th Street, which is 222,360 square feet of emptiness. The residentially zoned lot, near the boardwalk, is under HPD evaluation for development, the department said.

10. Another 210,000 dwelling-free square feet is at 114-200 Beach 36th Street in Far Rockaway, also near the boardwalk. It’s part of a multiphase housing project in progress, according to HPD. No plans have been filed with the Department of Buildings.

Source and methodology: An analysis of the 1,007 HPD-owned lots that have not been transferred or developed as of Sept. 18, 2017, provided through an open records request. Data from NYC OpenData and the city’s Zoning & Land Use Map was used to determine lot sizes. Excluded from the final analysis were lots whose borough, block and lot numbers appeared to no longer exist, and smaller lots that if assembled could comprise a larger development site.

Write to Mary Diduch at [email protected].


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