CUNY looks to boost coffers with prime west side real estate

CUNY is soliciting developers interested in a John Jay College building on Amsterdam Avenue. (Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY)

BY RACHEL HOLLIDAY SMITH AND GABRIEL SANDOVAL, THE CITY | The financially strapped City University of New York is looking to mine another valuable asset: its prime Manhattan real estate.

This story was originally published on OCT. 11 by THE CITY.

The city’s public university system put out a call last week asking real estate developers to suggest projects for a site within shouting distance of Billionaires’ Row.

The former shoe factory at 1 Amsterdam Ave. at 59th Street, last occupied by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has been nearly empty since the school relocated in 2011.

CUNY is asking developers to submit proposals that would supply at least 300,000 square feet for college operations, to be sold or leased to the state Dormitory Authority.

That would leave up to about 500,000 more square feet of space a developer could devote to other purposes — and wring as much money out of the property as possible, according to the solicitation.

The development must “maximize the financial return to CUNY,” the document states.

CUNY has previously identified 1 Amsterdam Ave. as a home for the relatively new Guttman Community College, currently in rented space near Bryant Park.

Frank Sobrino, a CUNY spokesperson, said only that the university is “looking to see how we might be able to make better use of an underutilized asset.”

Red Ink and Big Bucks

Real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller said the four-story, 1950s-era John Jay building may be one of the last large development parcels west of Columbus Circle, following a development boom.

“Many property owners, long-term property owners, don’t realize how valuable some of the assets they possess are today versus when they acquired them decades ago,” he said.

The city acquired 1 Amsterdam Ave. in 1980 through a foreclosure action, deed records show.

The John Jay project comes as CUNY has weathered years of budget cuts and copes with aging facilities. An independent audit prepared for the university last year shows CUNY had a nearly $700 million net deficit.

CUNY has previously teamed with private partners to build dorms in Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan, and moved its law school from Flushing to Long Island City, thanks to a partnership with Citigroup.

The John Jay plan stands out as an effort to not only build a new CUNY facility but also extract potentially significant sums from university-owned real estate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pushing CUNY for years to consider selling or using its properties to generate revenue for the university system, which is funded primarily by the state.

In his 2017 financial plan, Cuomo called for the sale of 450 West 41st St., the location of Hunter College’s Master of Fine Arts program, and encouraged consideration of sales of other CUNY properties, POLITICO New York reported.

Proposals from developers for the John Jay site are due back to CUNY by Nov. 20.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.