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City Council Approves Downtown Far Rockaway Rezoning

Rendering of Queens Far Rockaway Branch Public Library by Snøhetta. Image credit: NYC EDC

City Council approved a 22-block rezoning of Downtown Far Rockaway, Queens. On September 7, 2017, the City Council approved a large-scale rezoning and development plan for Downtown Far Rockaway by a vote of 46-0. The resolutions will create a Special Downtown Far Rockaway district, a Mandatory Inclusionary Housing area, and an Urban Renewal Area. $288 million has been secured to grant amenities this community has been requesting for over 40 years.

The new district will affect a 22-block area bounded by Nameoke Avenue to the north, Caffrey Avenue to the south, Beach 22nd Street, Beach Channel Drive and Redfern Avenue to the west, and Gateway Boulevard to the east. This area has not seen much development since the adoption of the Zoning Resolution in 1961. For CityLand’s prior coverage, click here.

“It’s a new day in Far Rockaway,” said Council Member Donovan Richards, one of the pioneers of this project. Richards, the chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, represents District 31 where the development will occur. At the Subcommittee meeting on August 21, 2017, and the City Council meeting on September 7, Richards made strong statements supporting this project. Richards spoke of the neglect this neighborhood has seen, and how lack of government spending has brewed cynicism and violence. For example, the district does not have even one daycare center, bullet drills are performed in preschools, and the Far Rockaway bus stop is the only stop in the entire City without a ticket booth. Richards stated that this development plan is “bigger than the words ‘density,’ ‘bulk,’ and ‘height.’”

The project will create 3 million square feet of new residences, which have been restricted by zoning since 1961. 100% of the new housing on public land will be affordable, and 1,700 new units in the Urban Renewal Area will be affordable for those with 30% of the Average Median Income. Council Member Jumaane D. Williams remarked that, “this is what Mandatory Inclusionary Housing should have been since the beginning,” and praised those who demanded this type of progress. Addressing concerns of gentrification, Richards emphasized this significant investment in affordable housing. Richards has worked with the developers and community for the past 2 years to ensure this plan provides “economic growth without displacement.”

Infrastructure development is an essential part of the project. $77 million will go towards sewers, sidewalks, and streetscapes. $78 million will be spent to upkeep all the community’s parks, with $59 million for Bayswater Park, and $9 million for Red Fern Houses Playground; Richards urged the applicants to fund the upkeep of all parks in the community, especially Red Fern, at the July 27th public hearing, because the children that enjoy them do not pick their neighborhoods. The School Construction Authority will build a new school in the Urban Renewal Area as the community grows. $10 million of new funding will go towards existing schools for infrastructure such as playgrounds, auditoriums, laboratories, and libraries. The ferry service will be expanded to reach Downtown Far Rockaway.

Through the questions posed by Richards at the July 27th public hearing, and the willingness of the applicant, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (“NYCEDC”), to incorporate suggestions, this project is clearly focused on the Downtown Far Rockaway community. Richards met every proposed idea by asking, “How is the community benefitting?”

An Urban Renewal Area allows the City to acquire land for public purposes without permission, so risk of overreach is always a concern. The NYCEDC President and CEO James Patchett believes that an Urban Renewal Area is a tool of last resort that needs to be used here to develop widely underutilized and vacant property; Underutilization is a proper public purpose that grants the City authority to acquire the land, and certain property in Far Rockaway has been vacant for over 40 years. Now, the City can use the land to provide services to the community as opposed to the land remaining vacant.

Leila Bozorg, Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies at NYC Housing Preservation and Development stated, “Existing residents should stay in the neighborhoods they love with change occurring…the supply must meet the demand for affordable housing.” She stressed the need for “aggressive land use policy to keep affordability permanent.”

Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, representative of the State’s 23rd District and a lifelong resident of Rockaway, also testified at the July 27th public hearing. Assemblywoman Pheffer Amato supports the rezoning but emphasized the need to listen to community concerns. Pheffer Amato called out the needs of the long-standing community, such as union jobs, jobs at prevailing wages, education for the service industry, parking and transportation, and more schools to accommodate the new residences. As this community moves from “a rotary phone to an iPhone 7,” Pheffer Amato stressed that the whole community needs to speed up together.

Kevin Alexander, the President and CEO of the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation (“RDRC”) spoke of more extensive community needs, such as family entertainment and small business support. He committed RDRC to monitoring the progress of the project so that it has a positive impact on the residents of Downtown Far Rockaway.

It truly is a new day in Far Rockaway—an inter-agency effort and rezoning of this scale will have monumental, long-standing impact. This rezoning may also become a model to revitalize other neighborhoods throughout the City.

CC: Downtown Far Rockaway Development Plan (LU 0721-2017; LU 0722-2017; LU 0723-2017; LU 0724-2017; LU 0725-2017; LU 0726-2017) (Sept. 7, 2017).

By: Shelby Hoffman (Shelby is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2017.)