Woodhaven redevelops eyesore

Everyone was swooning,” said Maria Thomson, executive director of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corp., describing the reaction of Woodhaven, Queens, residents to a presentation of a new condominium proposal by Square One Real Estate.

Woodhaven Plaza, a proposed three-story, nine-unit condominium project, did not get the typical reaction to development in New York, where the abundance of new projects and the speed with which they go up barely leaves time for swooning adoration. Residents of the outer boroughs are often wary of new construction, particularly condominiums, which are sometimes seen as harbingers of more expensive and dense housing to come.

But in Woodhaven, a neighborhood located between Forest Park and Richmond Hill, new construction is a rarity. As a result, the condo project is a welcome addition in some residents’ minds. This densely populated community is in need of more housing but has almost nowhere to build it, as empty lots are at a premium. And the economics of new development haven’t always added up in the past.

“The area is very dense; there’s really not an open spot to be found,” said Mary Ann Carey, district manager of Community Board 9.

In Woodhaven, one- and two-family homes predominate. Most of the apartment-buying market in the area is dominated by co-ops in prewar buildings of four or five stories and, to a lesser degree, by condos.

An MLS search of available Woodhaven condos and co-ops, run by Herb DeCordova, a sales associate with Prudential Douglas Elliman, showed available co-ops ranging from studios asking $129,000 to 3-bedroom units priced at $359,000. Available condos were far fewer in number: Only one — a two-bedroom for $425,000 in a converted prewar building — turned up.

The new project, a bargain by Manhattan standards, will house one-bedrooms ranging from 700 to 800 square feet priced from $270,000 to $300,000.

The site where Woodhaven Plaza is being built was an eyesore, home to a property that had been abandoned by its owner years before.

“We had tried to sell the building so many times,” said Thomson, who added that the property had been unoccupied for 25 years. “It’s in a great location, surrounded by two-family homes. Everything in the area was established, and we had this one Cinderella that could have been made into something really good.”

At one point, the property was sold to a new owner who began to renovate it, but money ran out. The building continued to sit, half-finished, right behind a thriving shoe store. Finally, the property was resold to a developer about two years ago.

“It was burnt out; the only thing left was the shell,” said Shalom Ibrahimian, president of the Square One Group, which is handling sales for the condo.

The development corporation, Woodhaven Plaza Condominium, kept the outer structure, covering the original brick with stucco. All the apartments will have hardwood floors in a choice of two finishes, washer/dryers, Jacuzzi tubs and granite countertops. Each unit on the third floor will have an equal share of the rooftop. Almost all of the apartments are completed, said Ibrahimian, and a few are already under contract, though the project has not been widely advertised yet. Ibrahimian said most of the interest so far has been through word of mouth.

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This is Manhattan-based Square One’s first project in Queens, and Ibrahimian noted that the elements of “rush and pressure” that are so commonplace in Manhattan real estate were not evident in this project, including potential residents’ interest in the apartments. “In Manhattan, you can often sell just from an offering plan,” he said. “In Queens, people wanted to see a finished apartment.”

While new development is rare, one of the most recent condo projects in the area is the Woodhaven Park Estates, which occupies the site of the former St. Anthony’s Hospital. (The hospital opened in 1914 and was later used for offices and medical research by St. Vincent’s Medical Center.) In its place now are 68 semi-attached two-family homes, each divided up into two apartments with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The initial asking price for these was in the $550,000 range when the project was completed in 2005. While the homes have all been fully occupied for some time, some resales are beginning to happen. Claude Marku, broker-owner of Century 21 Park Lane Realty, recently sold one Woodhaven Park Estates home for $780,000.

Other condos don’t seem to be faring as well. Owners at Briarwood Condominiums, a condo project that was built in the 1970s on 98th Street across from Forest Park, recently have encountered some difficulties trying to sell their homes. Initial buyers bought an entire building, which was divided into individual apartments. Those particular homes were set up without individual metes and bounds. Most banks don’t have financing programs for these types of homes, so some owners have had to suspend their plans to sell and wait for better market conditions. About two Briarwood homes have sold in the past 10 years, said Marku.

Since the 1980s, the community has grappled with the issue of homeowners renting out their basements illegally, which creates a web of problems, including increased traffic, overcrowding in schools, and the need for more sanitation.

Some residents have noted an influx of newcomers from all over. Leonora Lavan, president of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society, suspects that the area’s proximity to JFK Airport, with its increased number of security jobs, may be drawing more people to the neighborhood. “The airport has hired a lot of new people, and the license plates of people moving in come from all over,” she said.

“I’ve been here 22 years, and I’ve seen Woodhaven change from a very quiet neighborhood to one with bumper-to-bumper traffic,” said Marku. “People split up their homes to accommodate more people and do illegal basement rentals.”

Woodhaven’s zoning laws keep the many buildings in the area from rising too high. Most of Woodhaven is zoned R31 — mainly semi-attached and detached one- and two-family homes. Some portions of Woodhaven are now zoned R5 (high-rise, meaning more than four stories); there are only about 12 of those buildings, and they are all fully occupied.

Woodhaven Plaza did not require any zoning changes.

The neighborhood has become more ethnically diverse over time. In the 1960s and 1970s, the area was dominated by Germans and Italians, but now includes Latinos, West Indians and Chinese, among other groups. Jamaica Avenue, the area’s main shopping thoroughfare, represents them all. “Jamaica Avenue caters to every ethnicity in the neighborhood, and it’s thriving; everything is rented,” said Marku. “In the last six or seven years, the higher the price of Property On The Avenue got, the more businesses opened. People bought buildings and opened stores, and it all got bought up.”

Ibrahimian predicts that Woodhaven Plaza will attract young buyers, including those priced out of other areas.

“Our target buyers are singles or young couples, possibly those who can’t afford to live in Manhattan,” he said.

Thomson agrees, but thinks the building may have another interested group as well. “The new apartments are very practical for younger people coming to the neighborhood; they’re right near all transportation for those who are commuting to Long Island or the city, and they’re near a shopping strip,” she said. “For people who own homes in the community and can’t afford to keep them up anymore but who still want to stay in the area, the condos are a great way to remain in Woodhaven without all the responsibilities of owning a house.”