Friday, July 18, 2014

Answer: What can you find out about this property?

I visited the Sesame Street studio in 2011 and was fascinated by the location of the studio and where so much magic was made in the real world... and that leads to this week's Challenge:  

1.  Where are the studios where the live-action Sesame Street videos are created in the United States?  (Can you find the street address for the studios?) 
2.  The studio location is pretty large, and as you remember from last winter, it sometimes snows in the northeastern US.  How can Cookie Monster get to work if the studio streets are snowed in? Can you find the snow removal status of the street(s) where the studio is located? 

3. (Harder)  The studio has temporarily blocked of one of the streets adjacent to the main building.  On the northernmost corner of the block just to the southeast of the main building, there is now a vacant lot.  Can you figure out what the last business to occupy that vacant lot was?  (If you're really curious, who owns that property now, and how much did they buy it for?)  

The first question isn't that hard.  A simple query like: 

     [ Sesame Street studio address ] 

There's a fun article on the Muppet Wikia site that tries to work out where in NYC the "real" Sesame Street would be located (as suggested by clues given in the series), but the clues are inconsistent, so the "real" Sesame Street remains located in a vague dream-space where all good stories reside.  

But the second link in the results leads to the actual studio, which is the Kaufman Astoria Studios, at 34-12 36th Street, Astoria, NY 11106.  It's true that Sesame Street began filming at Unitel Studios on 57th Street, but then moved to the Kaufman Astoria Studios in 1993, when they needed more space.  

Now to answer the second question requires a bit more sleuthing.  

     [ new york city snow removal status map ] 

Gives me New York City's Official PlowNYC Website.  I added the word "map" at the end of that query because I thought that the way to find out the "snow removal" status would be either in a street-by-street database OR a clickable map.  (Luckily, it turned out to be a map.)  

Here's what that map looks like: 

The avenues around the studio are "primary" and the streets are "secondary."  The characters should be able to get to work fairly easily, as long as they stay on the avenues.  

Note that you have to be a little careful to select the "Snow Removal Designation" and not the "Snow Vehicle Tracker," which only gives the last updated snow plow time.  

When I solved this Challenge, I noticed the URL for the SnowMap given above.  Check it out:  

See the part of the URL that says "template?applicationName=SNOW"?  That makes me wonder if there isn't a base map that is the "master map," and we're just looking at a particular view (that is, the "SNOW" view).  

So I just deleted that "template?applicationName=SNOW" from the URL and hit reload on the page. 

Look what it gave me!  The underlying Master Map, which has all kind of options to search and view information about properties.  

Notice how this view (of the Kaufman Studios building) shows a sheet on the right with lots of information.  Date of construction (1919), square footage (280,000 sq feet, est.), police precinct (114), and so on.  

Interesting.  What's more, this is a clickable map--you can click on ANY building in NYC and get a lot of information quickly.  

So I want more information on the "northernmost corner of the block just to the southeast of the main building" (sorry that this is a confusing description).  Here's what I meant:  

Now, when I click on it in the main map, I get: 

36-04 34th Avenue, Astoria, NY.  

Interesting.  It's owned by "Corner Piece Astoria"  (which sounds suspiciously like a company that was set up to buy, own, and hold just one piece of property).  That makes me think that it might be mentioned in a public announcement somewhere.  

This suggests the following search: 

     [ "Corner Piece Astoria" ] 

My idea is to find places in the news, or in public filings, where this land purchase might have been mentioned.  And sure enough, I discovered in a press release that in 2010, "purchase of a 9,600-square-foot parcel at 36-06 34th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. The parcel is across the street from the landmark Kaufman Astoria Studios." It took one more click to yet another press release to find that Thomas D. Kearns and Hyman Kindler (attorneys for of Olshan Grundman Frome Rosenzweig and Wolosky LLP) represented the buyer, Corner Piece Astoria LLC.  

In the press release the empty lot is described as "A prime 9,600-square-foot irregularly-shaped parcel, offering 48,000 square feet buildable, located along 34th Avenue in the Long Island City area of Queens, has just been acquired by Corner Piece Astoria LLC for $3 million." 

But what was so interesting was the other little tidbit in that press release.  “Several underground gas tanks were removed and subsurface oil was remediated in accordance with applicable laws during the three years since we introduced these parties in order for the deal to finally close,” explained Mr. Schechtman who added that in an unusual twist, this work was done by the buyer prior to closing."

Okay, so why would a buyer need to remove underground tanks and remediate subsurface oil?  

Big lesson: When you're using a new tool for the first time, take a few seconds to look around and see what's possible to do.  ALWAYS do this the first time--even 30 seconds will help--because you almost never do this the second time you use a new UI or database.  

Look at this:  

Here I've highlighted the property in question in the red-dashed box.  

But where did I get this image from?  A:  These aerial images from earlier times are hidden under the "Map Types" clickable item in the upper right of the map viewer.  That's handy, because now we can see what this looked like in 1996.  

What does it look like to you?  Looks like a gas station to me.  (The thing in the middle looks like the gas station island, where the pumps are. There's even a car pulled up and presumably getting gas.)  

Let's check out this place in Streetview.  The top image is the way it looked in Sept, 2013, and the bottom one is in Sept, 2007.   I went back to 2007 to find out what the earliest image might tell us.  

You can see the concrete pads where the pumps once were, and the pads that are covering the underground gas tanks.  The building in the back sure looks like a gas station.  I can't quite read the signs, but it seems to be advertising Brakes, and Lube... that kind of thing.  

But just on a lark, I also checked out the Streetview from 2007.  THIS is much better; it not only tells us what it was, but also the name of the last owner.  

Zoom in a bit... 

Makes sense.  

Search Lessons:  

1.  Pay Attention to the UI when you first run across it.  On first encounter, you'll often see things and notice options that you'll ignore (or worse, not ever notice again) on the second and third times.  Take a second, click on those buttons and see what's there.  (You never know when it'll be useful.)  PAY ATTENTION!  

2.  Going to the oldest image in the set might not give you the answer.  In this case, looking at the image in the middle (from 2007) gave us a much higher resolution image than the current image (which has the sign removed) or the oldest one (which is too blurry to be read).  

3.  Watch the URL for clues about what else is possible.  This doesn't happen all the time, but every so often the URL will reveal details about the information architecture.  In this case, the "application" and "view" parts of the URL suggested that there was more available, if only you knew how to find it.  

That last lesson is a little advanced, but now you're attuned and can keep an eye out for it.  You never know when you'll discover something incredibly useful. 

Search on! 


  1. Good Morning, Dr. Russell.

    A very impressive answer. I liked specially this: 1. Pay Attention to the UI when you first run across it and 3. Watch the URL for clues about what else is possible. I almost never check this. I'll do it now.

    I also liked that Rosemary and Fred found answer following different paths in their search.

  2. Thanks Ramón. I am impressed by NYC interactive map & good tip to read the URL looking for info. I went back using the vacant lot and started adding from the Additional Data Menu many icons to see what cropped up. There is so much more info. Good tip.

    I was curious about the underground gas tanks. I don't know for a fact but I would venture to guess that the gas tanks had some leakage (most do) that when they took over 36th Street it could have been part of the agreement that they not only removed the tanks but to clean up the surrounding area. Having some experience in this area, when a commercial building is bought, and a gas tank was in a neighboring property the buyer of the commercial building very well may be made to obtain underground samplings to prove no liquids have seaped into surrounding properties. It would have been a good time when 36th Street was closed to do tests & have the studio pay for the cleanup.That's what I would have done. I suppose if we saw purchase agreement of the gas station it might have outlined the conditions. I thought it very curious that the old building stayed on the lot. You would think the taxes for a vacant lot would be a lot cheaper if it had been removed. It's a bit of an eye sore as is. Perhaps they are making some use of it.

  3. Dan First try using PUBLISH vanished; this is PREVIEW

    Nifty solutions. I like that. If only I not gone off-track I coulda been a contender.

    jon tU