A long-shuttered former courthouse in Queens that the city sold for just $50,000 nearly a decade ago to build a medical facility can now be used for commercial and office space instead.
The board of the city’s Economic Development Corporation voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a change to the deed with the former Rockaway Courthouse, which has now been closed for 60 years.
The move allows the owner, Uri Kaufman of The Harmony Group, to lease the space to commercial tenants — a request he made for years.
The city approved the transfer of the courthouse building to Kaufman in 2013, and he officially purchased it in 2015 for $50,000, according to an EDC spokesperson. The low price was meant to allow for major renovation of the 1931 building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Construction and asbestos abatement was completed by 2020. Overall, Kaufman has spent around $11 million in repairs, he told THE CITY.
Kaufman said the courthouse was “one of the toughest buildings we ever did,” noting it originally had only one exit — so they had to construct an additional wing out the back for fire safety.
Although it has been abandoned for decades, the building has otherwise remained intact.
“This thing was straight and true — it took no water during Sandy, which is kind of miraculous,” he said, referring to the 2012 superstorm. “We’ve since had to bring it up to full flood requirements, so it’s basically a submarine. It’s really very, very flood resistant.”
Although the original deal with the city called for the developers to lease the 24,000-square-foot building for medical offices, Kaufman said the demand has decreased because the nearby Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center has expanded and another medical office building opened a few blocks away.
Kaufman anticipates renting the space for offices and coworking, he said. He’s already set up a website for Rockaway Coworks, dubbed an “alternative workspace” — although desks are not yet available for rent at 90-01 Beach Channel Drive.
“There’s tremendous demand for that in Rockaway, there’s no quality office building anywhere in about a seven-mile radius,” he told THE CITY. “People now want to work closer to home.”
Six Decades of Plans
The three-story courthouse, on the corner of Beach 90th Street and Beach Channel Drive near the foot of the Cross Bay Bridge, opened in the early 1930s and closed in 1962.
It’s been the subject of many failed development plans in the 60 years since — from a community center to condos, to a possible “CUNY by the sea” as a oceanside branch of the City University of New York, according to Jonathan Gaska, the district manager of Community Board 14.
The CUNY plan was killed and the city funding for it later went towards a new library in downtown Far Rockaway.
“He’s sitting there with a vacant building that’s certainly renovated on the outside,” Gaska told THE CITY, adding that after years of stalled plans, he’s hopeful Kaufman will fill the inside with tenants.
Kaufman has spent more than 20 years trying to develop the courthouse. In 2002, he and another developer, Ira Schwartz, sent the EDC a preliminary proposal to buy the building for $125,000 and spend up to $2 million to renovate, according to reports at the time.
But those plans fell through in 2004 after the developers failed to submit their final proposal by a March 9 deadline.
Kaufman eventually bought the property in 2015 for an even lower price, with promises to rent to doctors and medical firms. But within a year he was already talking to EDC officials about non-medical uses for the building, according to emails obtained by the Rockaway Times in 2017 through a Freedom of Information Law request.
As reconstruction on the building took years and Kaufman struggled to find leaseholders, he began suggesting alternatives to his original proposal for an ambulatory surgical center, according to the Rockaway Times. Ideas included using the space for universal pre-K or a daycare.
The building was eventually renovated by 2020, but Kaufman told THE CITY multiple factors, including the pandemic, shifted interest in what could be leased there.
“Things are slowly creeping back to normal, so there might be some activity in that area, but right now we have a lot of plans,” he said.
Bridget Klapinski, the president of the Rockaway Beach Civic Association, said the community was happy with the external renovations to the historic building.
“The building is in better condition, or at least looks to be, than it has in many years,” she said. Local residents can ideally benefit from whichever tenants end up at the building, whether accountants, attorneys, architects, or a co-working space, she said.
“The intent was very much to have the office space be able to serve the local community,” she said. “We hope it serves the community well.”