This Queens developer’s secret to building an empire? Family, and tax breaks

With a portfolio over 1,600 units, second-generation firm Ciampa Organization has long taken advantage of 421a

Clockwise from top left: 136-37 37th Avenue, 32-08 Union Street, 51-00 Northern Boulevard,  41-21 24th Street, Packard Square West (center) and 16-66 Bell Boulevard
Clockwise from top left: 136-37 37th Avenue, 32-08 Union Street, 51-00 Northern Boulevard, 41-21 24th Street, Packard Square West (center) and 16-66 Bell Boulevard

When the Ciampa Organization began developing multifamily apartments in the 1960s, New York’s housing market was on the way down. In the decade following, the city attempted to stimulate development with various tax incentive programs. The family-owned Ciampa took notice, and it’s been a hallmark of its business strategy ever since.

In fact, Ciampa earned the first approval for a planned-unit development in the city, according to a 1976 article in the New York Times, and as a result was able to build a denser development in exchange for including open space and other amenities. And in 2016, 11 of the 21 apartment buildings the company owns received a 421a tax abatement.

Ciampa’s 1,666-unit residential portfolio is spread throughout Queens, with the largest cluster of buildings in Flushing. But beyond its holdings, not much is widely known about the firm.

Ciampa [TRDataCustom] was founded in the 1930s by Joseph Ciampa Sr., an Italian immigrant who had previously started a construction company called Astoria Roof and Shingle Company. Joseph died in 1991 at the age of 88, but with his sons Joseph Jr., Dominick, Benjamin, and Douglas playing key roles, the organization remained a family business.

It’s a “generational company,” said Cushman & Wakefield’s Stephen Preuss. “They built a lot of the product that they own – they’ve kept it in the family.”

Ciampa did not respond to multiple requests to participate in this story, but through an analysis of news clips and property records, The Real Deal has put together much of the company’s history.

One of Ciampa’s earliest developments appears to have been over 75 years ago in Flushing. In January 1940, the Times reported that a property on 29th Avenue owned by Joseph Ciampa filed plans for a two-story development. Total cost, $5,000.

After focusing on single- and two-family homes in its early years, the company began developing apartment buildings in the 1960s and had built seven of them by 1979, according to the Times. The company utilized various tax incentives to help finance a good chunk of that construction, records show.

Two such projects were apartment buildings at 139-81 35th Avenue in Flushing and 16-70 Bell Boulevard in Bayside. The Flushing project had taken advantage of 421a, which at the time was intended to stimulate construction on vacant or “underutilized” land. Under the program, buildings were exempt from property taxes for two years and then paid increasingly more in taxes over the next 10. Ciampa had applied for, but not yet received, an exemption for the Bayside project in early 1973, which would have also required that units remain under rent stabilization for 10 years, with starting rents below market value.

“We would have built much smaller in Bayside without it,” Dominick Ciampa said at the time. “We would not have taken so big a bite of the rental market. Now, I’m buying property on the assumption that they’ll extend the law.”

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The two properties, which combine to feature 255 units with over 226,000 square feet of residential space, netted $3.5 million in income for the company in 2015, according to net operating income (NOI) figures recorded by the Department of Finance. (The numbers are based on Real Property Income and Expense figures that property owners submit to the DOF, so they may differ from outside estimates.)

Ciampa’s move to take on more ambitious development projects was not without its setbacks. When a planned Whitestone project faced community resistance in the 1970s, Dominick expressed his frustration.

“Communities are getting more militant, and they are negative to any development process whatever,” he told the Times in 1976.

The company then ran up against preservationists in the 1980s when it planned to demolish the then-102-year-old towers and archway that had previously served as a railroad terminal in Woodside. After a stop-work order halted demolition, the company reworked its plans and preserved the structure, including it in what is now the Tower Square Shopping Center.

The property remains in Ciampa’s commercial portfolio, along with properties in the Whitepoint Shopping Center, which the company also built. Last week, the firm bought a single-story warehouse in Maspeth for $10 million.

Ciampa’s full residential portfolio includes 1,666 apartments across 21 multifamily properties, totaling over 1.5 million square feet of residential space, and one single-family home, according to an analysis by TRD. DOF records show that the properties grossed $40.2 million in revenue in 2015 with a net income of $26.9 million.

Ciampa will soon expand its Packard Square portfolio in Long Island City, adding a fourth building to its already lucrative properties there. The three existing buildings grossed over $6.4 million of income in 2015, according to DOF data.

The fourth building, a ground-up development, would add 79 units to the company’s residential portfolio, according to the Department of Buildings filing.

Property records show that many of the company’s residential and commercial holdings were placed into a single company in June 2015. The sales, which total nearly $380 million across nine transactions, transferred full ownership from various family members and other entities to 136 Holding Company LLC, which shares an address with Ciampa’s Queens office. Ciampa also appears to have transferred or sold a majority stake in another five residential buildings to one of the family members, though TRD could not determine the exact ownership structure.