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Rezone the Rockaways—They've Waited Long Enough

Julia Vitullo-Martin, June 2008

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin) Can the neighborhoods of Rockaway—a six-mile-long section of an 11-mile peninsula jutting out from the southern corner of Queens—emerge from the economic and development morass to which six decades of destructive government policy had once consigned them? Given the market forces at work following World War II as well as the changes in American tastes, the Rockaways' exuberant mix of high- and low-income households was probably fated to be lost in the short run. But government actions—particularly an urban renewal program that acquired and demolished private residences and built public housing and nursing homes where they once stood—ripped the heart out of the community. Activists, private citizens, and the community board fought back over the decades. But theirs was pretty much a losing battle until the Bloomberg administration took notice, in 2002.

After several years of work, the Department of City Planning announced on April 21, 2008, a comprehensive rezoning of 280 blocks encompassing the neighborhoods of Far Rockaway, Edgemere, Somerville, Rockaway Park and Rockaway Beach. The intention is to protect the scale of the peninsula's distinctive housing stock, including some (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) 200 bungalows and dozens of blocks of one- and two-family homes, by curbing out-of-character development. The proposal would also upzone two areas close to public transportation in order to promote moderate retail and residential development. Noting in an interview that the Rockaways had been hurt by a great deal of "wrong-headed government interference" through the years, City Planning Director Amanda Burden went on to say that the rezoning "will add value and a sense of predictability about what can be built. This will bring significant preservation to some areas while allowing growth elsewhere, in particular strengthening the retail environment."

The chairperson of Queens Community Board 14, Dolores Orr, calls the plan popular with most—except a small contingent from Rockaway Park opposed to upzoning.

THE DECLINE OF A COMMUNITY
Blessed with the Atlantic Ocean to the south and Jamaica Bay to the north, the Rockaways became a popular resort area of elegant hotels and fine houses in the 1830s. The coming of the railroad in the 1880s encouraged more intensive development, including playlands, amusement parks and a few apartment buildings. Attractive beachfront communities were developed, such as Belle Harbor, Neponsit, and Arverne. The opening of the Cross Bay Bridge in 1925 and (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) the Marine Parkway Bridge in 1937 made the Rockaways convenient for middle- and working-class households, who bought the bungalows, frequently distributing themselves according to ethnic heritage. The Irish, who were probably the largest group, says Jonathan Gaska, CB 14's district manager, tended to live from the middle of the peninsula west, especially in Rockaway Beach and Rockaway Park. The Italians sprinkled themselves through different neighborhoods, but favored Belle Harbor and Neponsit. Jewish households settled in Far Rockaway, now called West Lawrence, and spilled into Bayswater. (Even now, this strong ethnic heritage remains, amid substantial racial diversity. Residents joke that half the police and fire departments live in the Rockaways—and, indeed, the area lost more of its residents on Sept. 11, 2001, than any other neighborhood of New York.)

But one very large problem loomed: the peninsula was far away from Manhattan. That was fine so long as families headed out for long vacations, but not so fine when household members needed to commute to jobs—one and a half hours to midtown, for example. As the Rockaways declined in the 1950s, the city designated huge swaths as urban renewal areas. The city and the state then acquired private land through eminent domain, even as the 1961 rezoning branded the remaining property as nonconforming. Bungalows became illegal, and many small business owners found that their property had been rezoned residential even as adjacent property became industrial. They could no longer finance renovations or improvements, or get permits from the Department of Buildings.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Officials in the Wagner and Lindsay administrations found what they regarded as an answer to decline: build large public housing projects along the gorgeous beach. Today, the old towns of Arverne and Edgemere have some of the highest concentrations of public housing—and crime and unemployment—in New York. The city also used federal and state financing to support the development of dozens of nursing homes.

These days, almost no one regards the Wagner or Lindsay land-use planning decisions favorably. District manager Gaska, for example, calls the Rockaways the Siberia of city government. "For five decades, the city and state governments dumped their problems here," he says. "If you were a problem tenant in public housing, NYCHA sent you here. If you didn't have a job and weren't going to get one, then this was the place for you. When the state government started closing their hospitals, they began placing those with mental disabilities here, but without any services. The Rockaways now has 50 percent of the borough's adult-facility beds. The state just keeps approving new facilities via their sham community approval process. They send us what's called a 60-day letter, telling us they're going to approve a new facility. We say no, and they say, 'Thank you for your opinion; we're going to open it anyway.' One result was that, according to the 1990 Census, one-third of our population was on public assistance. In 2000 that was down in the 20s, thanks to some new development, and now it’s down to 18-20 percent, which is close to the city average."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Meanwhile, no one paid much attention to the decline in retail services and small businesses, which plummeted to almost non-existence by the mid-1980s. Real estate broker and long-time community board member Vince Castellano says that investment on Rockaway Boulevard, a commercial street, was effectively prohibited by city regulations. Zoned residential, the boulevard’s commercial uses were grandfathered under the 1961 zoning code, so that any business became an illegal, nonconforming use. "You could stay within the envelope, but couldn't expand, couldn't add," says Castellano, commenting on the lack of any future for business. "This was very hard on small businessmen like licensed tradesmen—plumbers, for example—who had to have a legal office in New York to keep their license. But the city didn’t want to recognize them if their business was in a residential zone."

He recalls a Koch administration that was "utterly indifferent" to this and other problems. "Koch had a thing about the Rockaways," says Castellano. It doesn't pay for government to do anything out there, he used to say. No matter what you do, half of the people are going to hate you, and half are going to love you. Politically, there's no advantage to be gained."

Still, the beauty of the Rockaway beaches, combined with the area’s obvious underdevelopment, led the Board of Estimate, in 1989, in one of its final actions before disbanding as the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, to authorize the development of 7,500 market-rate, high-rise units by Forest City Ratner. "It was a very close vote," recalls Gaska, who began as district manager that same year. "But within a year or so the project collapsed under its own weight. You couldn't give away condos or co-ops, so Forest City Ratner pulled out."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

In 1992, says Dolores Orr, the community board took advantage of a provision in the new city charter authorizing communities to draw up their own plans. After about two years of work, CB 14 presented the Giuliani administration with a rezoning very close to the current proposal. "The city was not of a mindset for these ideas," says Orr. "They threw us out," says Gaska, more bluntly.

The current mayoral administration, however, was something else. "I'm not a Bloomberg fan," Castellano says, "but City Planning is doing their rezoning on instructions from Bloomberg. This rezoning is so welcome, so at variance with anything City Planning has done in the past, that you have to thank the mayor." The department is also said by residents and activists to have an extraordinarily dedicated staff in its Queens office, headed by John Young. "They kept the stakeholders involved in the community," says Gaska. "John Young and his staff were here so many times I can't count the numbers—meeting people in the street, doing tours of the area, answering questions, listening, taking everything very, very seriously."

Indeed, the Bloomberg administration has been remarkably attentive to Queens. Of City Planning’s 82 rezonings throughout the five boroughs, 29 (covering 3,400 blocks) have been in Queens, which has one-quarter of the city’s population. At present, 580 blocks are under public review in the neighborhoods of the Rockaways, Dutch Kills, Laurelton, and Waldheim. No other mayoral administration ever approached these numbers.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

REBIRTH THROUGH REZONING?
The proposed rezoning, which extends from Beach 129th Street to the Queens-Nassau border, would:

  • Protect and reinforce the existing building scale of neighborhoods of one- and two-family homes by establishing lower-density zoning districts (R3A, R3X, R4, R4A, R4B, R4-1, R5, R5A, and R5B).
  • Allow owners of one-family homes within a 22-block section of Far Rockaway to expand their floor area and lot coverage. The area’s zoning would have to be changed from R2 to R2X, a designation now found only along Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn.
  • Enhance open space and streetscapes by converting the current R6 zoning, which does not require front and side yards, into a contextual district that does.
  • Increase residential parking requirements for new developments in R6 zones and above from one accessory parking space for 50 percent or 70 percent of total dwelling units to one space for 85 percent of the dwelling units.
  • Update commercial overlays throughout the peninsula to allow more retail and commercial sites along primary streets and mixed-use, residential-commercial development.
  • Introduce very modest contextual zoning (R5D, R6A, R7A and C4-3A) in a very few locations close to public transit to spur reinvestment.
  • (©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

    The proposal builds on previous successful contextual rezoning in the Far Rockaway and Mott Creek neighborhoods, which the community approved in September 2005, as well as the Bayswater rezoning, approved in April 2006. These neighborhoods adjoin sections of the current rezoning area. City Planning hopes that the rezoning will enhance the projects overseen by the Department of Housing & Preservation Development in Arverne, the urban renewal area where the city bulldozed thousands of bungalows in the1960s. Almost all of Arverne by the Sea, developed by the Beechwood Organization and the Benjamin Companies, has sold out. Arverne East’s 47 acres will receive commercial space plus 1,600 units of middle-income housing, consisting of condominiums and two- and three-family homes, including 300 units reserved as affordable. The project will also have a 35-acre nature preserve and a 15-acre dune preserve.

    Like many in Rockaway, Gaska supports the HPD-sponsored development but is dubious about the addition of so many units of affordable (read: subsidized) housing. "We have almost 2,000 units of affordable housing, more than any other community in Queens," he says. "Market-rate housing is important to attracting new retail outlets, particularly national chains that will in turn hire our residents. Our unemployment rate is almost 20 percent, or triple (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) the city average. We want mid- and big-box stores to locate here because they'll employ people." Over CB 14's protests, HPD stipulated in 2005 that 20% of Arverne East's units would be affordable (subsidized). In April of this year the developers—the Bluestone Organization, L & M Development Partners, and Triangle Equities—announced a delayed schedule. They won’t be starting the houses until January 2010. In the meantime, an ugly no-man's land persists where the city promised houses.

    Not far away from Arverne-by-the-Sea and potentially affecting its value lie the immense buildings of the New York City Housing Authority. NYCHA used Hope VI funds to make marginal improvements, including better lighting and landscaping, to Arverne and Edgemere Houses, which house 5,000 residents. As part of the effort, the buildings were renamed "Ocean Bay Apartments." They recently made the news when two men were shot on Ocean Bay's grounds.

    So far, much of the strictly private, non-HPD development hasn't been market-rate so much as speculative, and of such a low quality that the units haven't sold. (For an interesting analysis of this, see Matt Schwarzfeld's piece in City Limits.) In response, developers and bankers have turned to the Department of Homeless Services, which has been placing clients in the new housing, introducing concentrations of poverty to whole streets. Vince Castellano, who specializes in handling Section 8 tenants, says subsidized tenants are not in themselves the problem. "Character counts," he argues. "You can pick good Section 8 tenants or crummy ones. But good tenants don't want to live next to bad tenants, so you're liable to lose your good tenants— (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) and your investment—if you don't choose with care." Many neighbors are apprehensive that the city may set another downward spiral, like so many government-induced spirals of the past. This time, says one bungalow owner, we'll fight.

    BOTH DOWNZONING AND UPZONING ARE RIGHT
    The desire repeatedly expressed by Rockaway residents to preserve low-density residential neighborhoods is rightly supported by the proposed rezoning. Their charming vernacular housing, much admired now in fashionable architectural circles, is in demand from newcomers as well as long-time residents. Richard George, president of the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association, points out that bungalows that went for $5,000 in the early 1980s now sell for between $200,000 and $225,000. "We're at the lower end of the market, but we're seeing a resurgence of buyers from New York who want to be near the ocean. We were in a very different place in the 1980s, when speculators were the main customers."

    (©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

    Further, there's no sound policy reason in this distant neighborhood to encourage the replacement of vernacular residences with apartment towers, which depend on good public transportation—which Rockaway lacks. Indeed, the area is so car-dependent that the high-quality, mid-rise market-rate development has been providing 100 percent accessory parking, even though the zoning requires a proportion of only half.

    But surely more intensive commercial development should be allowed than City Planning is proposing for such now-dreary streets as 116th Street that are close to public transit and lead to the beach. Nearby residents fear a loss of views, but in fact even the proposed 7A zoning, allowing eight stories, will block almost no one’s sight lines.

    Residents hope that the new, city-subsidized (but still expensive) ferry service between Riis Landing, in Breezy Point at Rockaway, and Pier 11, on South Street in Lower Manhattan, will prove successful. Thanks to a $1.1 million grant from the City Council, to be spent over two years, New York Water Taxi will be able to cap the one-way fare at $6. It would otherwise be $15. It's clear that both neighborhood residents and city officials are working hard to ease the isolation that nearly destroyed the Rockaways. Will this be enough? (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) Probably not. But as Representative Anthony Weiner said when Congress authorized $15 million in 2005 to buy ferries, "There's almost an unlimited amount of traffic we can remove from our roads by expanding our water-borne transportation." It's a start.

    Castellano mentions the other factor that nearly proved fatal: crime. "Giuliani did do one thing for us indirectly," he says. "He put in motion the crime-fighting machinery that brought crime way down out here. He made neighborhoods that were previously unlivable livable." The Rockaways have two precincts: the 100th, which Castellano calls a "country club, where cops don't have to work too hard," and the 101st, "where you're going to get shot at." The borderline between the two is Beach 59th Street, which is a crime-ridden problem for both precincts. "No one understood at the time," Castellano muses, "that by attacking crime, Giuliani was going to make it practical for small businesses to open up again. Crime hits the small guy, and most of them had left." Indeed, since 1993 the 100th Precinct has seen a 74 percent reduction in violent crime and the 101st a 78 percent reduction. The NYPD's data bear out Castellano's depictions of the two precincts. While the 100th had one murder, five rapes, and 73 robberies last year, the 101st had four murders, 16 rapes, and 145 robberies. Both precincts are now far safer than in the old days, but the 101st is still not secure enough.

    There's an elegance to the fit between Bloomberg and Giuliani. The Bloomberg administration's rezoning will encourage exactly the kind of commercial ventures that might now flourish, thanks to Giuliani's crime-fighting strategy, which converted a once-hostile environment into one that is now fairly (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) benign. After the rezoning is approved, residents and business owners might well want to go meet with the captain of the 101.

    WHAT’S NEXT
    The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure started on April 21. Queens Community Board 14 approved the rezoning by 32 to 12 in mid-May, asking only that an environmental review be undertaken of the two upzonings—the only controversial parts of the proposal. Queens Borough President Helen Marshall approved it next, sending it on to the City Planning Commission, which held hearings on June 18. The commission will almost surely vote in July to affirm the plan—though perhaps with modifications. It will then send it to the City Council, a far less predictable body, which will have 50 days for review.

     

June 2008
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