Helena Rose Durst On Her Family's Bet On Queens
The Durst Organization’s plans for Halletts Point on the waterfront in Astoria have been far from smooth sailing.
The planned $1.5B megaproject is slated to eventually feature seven residential buildings with a mix of market-rate and affordable units, but has stalled over the expiration of the 421-a tax abatement.
The project was officially back on track a year ago, but since November, the second phase of the project has been stalled, this time because of the city’s decision to pull funding for one of the 100% affordable buildings that is part of the vast development.
“We’re not frustrated, we just recognize that this is part of the business,” company principal Helena Rose Durst told Bisnow.
Durst, whose father, Douglas, last year entered into a public spat with Mayor Bill de Blasio over campaign donations, said a somewhat fractious relationship with politicians is pretty standard for the company.
“It’s the nature of my family’s business, and, candidly, probably the nature a bit of my family,” she said, pointing to the decision of her grandfather, Seymour, to put up the first National Debt clock at Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1989.
“I think it’s in our nature to want to have politicians to be able to live up to what we think is good ordinance," she said. "We have found ourselves in this position again and don’t take it personally.”
The first building in the project, the 450-unit 10 Halletts Point, was not affected by the negotiations with the city and is set to open for leasing by the end of summer. And until the issues over financing and funding are resolved, Durst said the vacant lots will be repurposed as a beach for the complex.
While Durst is best known for its marquee developments in Manhattan like One World Trade Center and the Bjarke Ingels-designed luxury rental building VIA 57 West, it has been moving further afield in recent years.
Last year, it made its first investment outside of New York City, buying waterfront land in Philadelphia. The firm has invested in East Harlem and in addition to Halletts Point is working on Queens Plaza Park, a 978K SF building with nearly 1,000 units, 300 of which will be affordable.
“We look for developing neighborhoods due to land values,” Durst said, adding that access to transit was also a big factor in the company's decision to make investment plays in Queens and Philadelphia.
“Our demographic are really going to be the frontier people and pioneer people, and they’re really looking for good value,” she said.
Overall, there were $1.07B worth of Queens investment properties sold in the first quarter, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s data, a 32% jump from the same period in 2017. That dollar volume was the highest rate since the third quarter of 2016, the brokerage found, and well above the long-term quarterly average.
“We’re stealing some of the shine from the Brooklyn market … Queens is en vogue right now,” said C&W Senior Managing Director Stephen Preuss, who added there is great interest around Willets Point, where Related is set to develop around 1,000 apartments.
“Outside of the regular Queens investors, there are a lot of equity funds and larger groups from across the river that have never looked at Queens,” he said.
Preuss said Queens buyers are particularly interested in “Triple-A” assets in prime locations, which he said are places like Main Street in Flushing, 31st Avenue in Astoria, Austin Street in Forest Hills and Jamaica Avenue in Jamaica.
“I get more calls about Jamaica than anywhere else,” he said. “You can get land there for $100 per SF near a transportation hub.”
The Kaufman Organization, for example, is banking on Queens’ population growth and its easy access to Manhattan. Earlier this month, the firm acquired a 99-year ground lease on the Cardinal Building, a 65K SF building at 21-01 51st Ave., in Hunter’s Point in Long Island City.
Kaufman plans to convert the industrial building into office space.
“We’ve been cautious about Queens,” Kaufman New Ventures President Fred Leffel said. “[We are] very optimistic and bullish, but you have to be very selective in the location.”
He said access to the 7 train, which connects directly to the city’s burgeoning Hudson Yards District, passing through Grand Central Terminal, makes properties particularly valuable.
There may be divisions of firms that are renting in Hudson Yards that don't want to pay top rents, Leffel said, but still have quick access to to area.
“In Queens you have the population and the transportation that will spur retail and entertainment," he said. “All of a sudden you have the beginning of a 24/7 community. It’s not completely there yet, but it will get there.”