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Astoria Waterfront Braces for Influx of Luxury Apartments

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits Hallets Point to see what the neighborhood looks like before the upcoming development boom.


[In Halletts Point, a quiet Queens neighborhood on the East River, empty lots and industrial warehouses may soon become luxury residential towers. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Halletts Point is one of the few remaining New York neighborhoods that feels like a timeless, undisturbed backwater, forgotten by the city and left to urban entropy. With just one access road, the streets of this isolated community are unusually quiet at midday,  only seeing the occasional truck or bus. At the industrial edges of the neighborhood, within view of midtown Manhattan, life slows to a crawl in the hot summer sun. Baby geese wander dead end streets. A tow truck driver naps on the sidewalk. Teenagers sit in an empty waterfront lot, watching East River tugboats go by.  All of this may soon change, however, as the city contemplates rezoning the area to make way for two huge new development projects. If completed, these projects could triple the population density of this sleepy Queens peninsula.

In May, Community Board 1 backed a major rezoning of this neighborhood's industrial waterfront, which would allow a parade of new luxury residential towers to be built. The first project planned for the area was unanimously approved, and would result in more than 2,100 luxury housing units, and another almost 500 affordable housing units on the western shore of Halletts Point. A second residential project called "Astoria Cove," planned for the north side of the peninsula, would construct "seven new buildings ranging between eight and 30 stories with a total of 1,701 apartment units," according to the Wall Street Journal. Business owners and residents along the waterfront are conflicted about these plans.

"If they rezone this neighborhood, we'll lose our space," said Justin Green, the program director of Build It Green, a nonprofit located on the north side of Halletts Point. His 40,000-square-foot warehouse is located near the water's edge, where they have leased a space for the past eight years. His neighbors include a bus depot and a lumber yard. "I don't know where businesses like our are supposed to go after all this rezoning," said Green.  

After Hurricane Sandy, other local residents are concerned about the city's desire to drastically increase the population of the neighborhood, which has only one means of egress. "This is a flood zone!" said Dennis Donnelly, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1961. His home, located across the street from several East River warehouses, was flooded with five feet of water during the recent storm. "I don't even know if they can build over there," said Donnelly, gesturing towards the proposed site for Astoria Cove. "They went down a couple feet and found contamination." These residents' concerns, however, seem unlikely to stop the Bloomberg administration, which has tirelessly worked to aid developers in their quest to transform the shoreline of the once-industrial East River into a playground for newer, wealthier residents.

Along the western shore of Halletts Point, low warehouses and overgrown empty lots line the East River.

Developers have proposed to transform these quiet spaces into the Halletts Point project, according to the Journal, with an estimated cost of $1 billion.

In the meantime, some local residents use the isolated waterfront as a personal backyard, with views of the Empire State building.

The area includes a number of older homes near the waterfront, some of which have been converted to apartments. Dennis Donnelly, a local resident, believes his home is "definitely over 100 years old."

In recent years, several new apartment buildings have been built in the neighborhood. These apartments are five years old, according to one resident, who refers to them as the "super ugly new buildings."

Illegal dumping is a problem throughout the neighborhood, with trash mounds in parks and on sidewalks. Hundreds of mail bins were dumped at the dead end of this street.

"It's been a mess down here for a long time, since I've been coming here," said one MTA bus driver during his break, but "on the waterfront, that's money. You've got a view of Manhattan."

Build It Green, located on the north side of the neighborhood, leases its warehouse from a local landlord. It sells reclaimed and donated building material, including wood from old water towers.

"I understand wanting people to have access to the waterfront," said Justin Green, the program director of Build It Green. "It's such a great resource."

Build It Green's next door neighbors include a bus depot, where buses are parked on crumbling concrete at the water's edge.

In some ways, "it is unfortunate that a lot of industrial space got pushed to the waterfront," says Justin Green. "The industrial space keeps the public from the waterfront."

Several of Build It Green's industrial neighbors have already closed down, including Super Stud, a manufacturer which was located on the proposed site of the Astoria Cove project.

Inside Super Stud, the offices are covered in dust. Throughout the neighborhood, "a lot of the properties have been bought by speculators," said Justin Green.  

Just north of Halletts Point sits one example of the type of development that might be coming the the area.  This apartment tower on the East River provides a free shuttle service to residents, because the subway is so distant.

The moribund public promenade built by this tower's developer is an example of the type of limited waterfront access that might be created in Halletts Point.

The promenade, located 30 feet above the water, is used as a graying bike path for visitors trying to reach a greener space nearer to the water's edge.
?Nathan Kensinger
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