On Washington Heights Monopoly: 573-577 West 161st Street

27Jan08

In which The Gay Recluse, with very little sarcasm or irony, reports on real estate in Washington Heights.

Description: Triple-lot vacant land, long used as an illegal outdoor parking lot.

Address: 573, 575 and 577 West 161st Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam. Total lot size = 60′ by 100′.

Remarks: This site first sparked our interest almost five years ago when we walked by one Saturday and observed a revival-style tent — complete with candles and earnest people praying — and learned that the property (or some portion of it) had been purchased by a religious organization with intentions to put up a church with some housing on top to help fill the coffers. The ground — as it were — was being blessed.

Further research (via Property Shark) revealed that two of the lots (575 and 573) had in fact been purchased by the St. Mary Magdalen Orthodox Church, a Christian Orthodox organization (please don’t ask us to explain the nuances of this denomination in ecclesiastical terms) whose rector is affiliated with Columbia University. This seemed promising; at least it wasn’t a fly-by-night “religious” outfit similar to the ones that have been implicated in so many of the uptown housing scandals over the years.

The third lot — 577 — was owned by a pair of doctors who were using the lot as parking for their offices a few doors down and renting out the remaining spaces in all three lots to local residents. At the time, we were told that the St. Mary folks were negotiating to buy out the doctors, which would obviously make the most sense from any number of angles.

Fast forward to last week, at which point nothing had changed in terms of the lot itself — which had continued to operate as a parking facility these many years — but much had apparently happened behind the scenes. Records revealed that 1) the church had transferred ownership of 575 and 573 to Rohan Development by way of Mehta Real Estate, two corporations that — no surprise — are affiliated with a condominium development on 107th Street and Columbus Avenue where the church is headquartered, and 2) 577 remained in the hands of the doctors, but in 2007 they had applied for — and were denied — a permit to transform their lot into a parking facility. (Bravo, Department of Buildings — this site — a gap in row of beautifully detailed pre-war townhouses — is so not meant for parking!)

On Friday morning — in the event that sparked this report — small bulldozers arrived at 575 and 573 and ripped up the concrete base, essentially ending the possibility that any of the lots — even 577 — could be used for parking. Whoever manages 577 responded by cutting a new hole through the fence and — somewhat ridiculously — lining up a short convoy of SUVs.

At this point, no construction permits have been issued for 575 and 573. Our theory is that we are witnessing hardball negotiation by the church, whose attempts to purchase 577 have obviously not come to fruition. But now that any form of parking has been taken off the table, we would expect the doctors to have more reason to sell. (Of course logic may play only the most minimal role in either party’s thought processes.)

Whatever’s going on, we’re excited to see new ground broken on a relatively charming but moribund block. Stay tuned for further news as developments warrant.

577

Saturday morning. We’re curious to see what happens.

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