For decades Far Rockaway has been a land apart from the rest of the city. Situated on the far east side of Queens, almost on the border with Nassau county, this beach front community has long struggled with the issues of economic growth and social mobility that have plagued other neighborhoods throughout the city.
Yet the sixth borough, as many locals refer to it, stubbornly refuses to change even as other parts of the city have begun a metamorphosis into more prosperous neighborhoods.
Many in the community are hopeful that’s finally going to change. The Economic Development Corporation’s (EDC) “Roadmap for action” is the most extensive effort in a generation to break the neighborhood’s cycle of poverty and decay. This broad initiative building on Mayor de Blasio’s $91 million grant will make across the board investments in affordable housing, transportation and local small businesses. There have been other revitalization efforts for Far Rockaway, but no other plan has been so ambitious in scope. This time will be different. The EDC has never had more money or authority to back up its ambition.
“There are two major factors that give this plan for Far Rockaway a much better chance than previous plans,” explained Jonathan Gaska, long-time district manager in CB 14 for the past 25 years. “We’ve got $91 million to invest in the community and the authority to rezone downtown Far Rockaway for the first time in 50 years.”
The EDC’s Downtown Far Rockaway Roadmap for Action calls for tens of millions of dollars to be spent toward improving both the subway and LIRR lines, constructing a new business outreach center and renovating dozens of storefronts. EDC and community officials believe these efforts will jumpstart the stalled economy in the downtown district.
“We’ll help businesses in commercial corridors like Beach 20th Street. Parents will be able to attend job-training workshops while their kids play a pickup game at the greatly improved Sorrentino Recreation Center. And the whole community will enjoy the new, state-of-the-art Downtown Far Rockaway Library,” said Mayor de Blasio during a press conference back in February when the plan was announced.
The EDC’s Downtown Far Rockaway Roadmap for Action also calls for rezoning the long stymied downtown district to promote greater residential and commercial growth. Thirteen acres – about a quarter of the total rezoning area – would be included in the urban renewal area (URA).
“What most people are still unsure of is what criteria is the administration using to decide where these large-scale rezonings take place,” said Leonard Rodberg Ph.D, Professor of Health, employment, energy, climate change and urban data analysis at Queens College in Flushing.
Two of the criteria—room for development and good access to transportation—are fairly obvious, Rodberg explains, but many advocates wonder why the mayor has mostly focused on rezoning low-income neighborhoods with high Latino and African-American populations. “It risks catalyzing displacement and accelerating gentrification,” said Rodberg. “On the other hand, rezoning a high-income neighborhood would allow rents to cross-subsidize low-income apartments, making it easier for developers to provide the affordable units required under the city’s new mandatory inclusionary housing policy but without the use of city subsidy.”
“All of us are really watching and waiting to see whether the rest of the criteria is more balanced and especially whether there are more explicit points outlined in regards to how mandatory inclusionary housing will fit in with future neighborhood rezonings,” said Rodberg.
The city could try to seize properties in the URA by eminent domain. It is the first de Blasio neighborhood plan to propose the use of such a drastic measure, but
According to the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) there are only a few private property owners in the purposed urban renewal area that could fall under eminent domain. The primary target of such action would be Rita Stark. She is the landlord infamous for sitting on deteriorating properties across Brooklyn and Queens. Neighborhood stakeholders have repeatedly called on Stark to renovate her Far Rockaway properties, which includes the neglected Far Rockaway Shopping Center.
The shopping center on Mott Avenue remains largely abandoned after decades of neglect. The shopping center was once the home to Waldbaum’s, Martin’s Paints, a furniture store, an eye doctor, a florist, a clothing store and several other businesses. Now the only signs of life come from a small grocery anchored at the back of the lot and a shared business space occupied by Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robins.
Stark has a history of promising to develop the sight, but each time the plans seem to stall and fall apart. She entered into a partnership with the Shopco Advisory Group to turn the property around, but after a decade the site remains largely abandoned.
As it stands now, the property is largely unused. Out of more than fifteen retail units, only handfuls are occupied. The EDC would like to demolish the current structure and construct several new buildings that will become the centerpiece of the new downtown district. Planners imagine sit-down restaurants, entertainment venues, meeting space, hotels, and other commercial uses.
“We’ve used the threat of eminent domain in the past, but that could take years. We can move things along much faster by working together to do what’s best for the people of Far Rockaway,” explained Jordon Gibbons, a press officer for City Councilman Donovan Richards.
It’s not unusual in New York for policy makers to invest in spurring the local economy in order to attract new companies or businesses to move in. “Downtown revitalization” has become a popular term on both the city and state level. Since the beginning of the 20th century, all five boroughs in New York City have undergone major revitalization projects.
Nor is it surprising that most residents support revitalization efforts when it concerns improved public transportation, increased jobs and more community facilities. Tension usually arises between planners and residents when it involved constructing new housing units. Then the conversation shifts to concerns of gentrification, residential density and neighborhood aesthetics.
“A lot of neighborhoods in New York City have suffered the same problems as Far Rockaway – lack of affordable housing, poor transportation and economic opportunity – but it also some unique assets to capitalize on; like the boardwalk and historic bungalow houses,” Said Rodberg. “Unfortunately a combination of geography, politics and plain bad luck have prevented the kind of development in Far Rockaway that we’ve seen in East Harlem, Long Island City and certain parts of Brooklyn. It’s much the same as it was 25 years ago.”
Howard Schwach, 76, has lived in Far Rockaway his entire life and has bared witness to the changes in “the sixth borough” as he calls it. Schwach is the long-time editor of The Wave, Rockaway Peninsula’s 110-year-old weekly newspaper.
Schwach nostalgically describes growing up in Far Rockaway during the 1950s as a happy time. “The boardwalk was lined with stores and penny arcades, two movie theaters. Sometimes in the summer you slept on the beach; there was no air-conditioning. And it was great to be a teenage boy because thousands of teenage girls would flock to the Rockaways; summer romances were the thing.” If The EDC’s plans to rezone and rejuvenate Far Rockaway, the days of Schwach’s childhood will return again.
The Far Rockaway Shopping Center has long been an anchor on Mott Avenue, though its best years are surely behind it.
The Far Rockaway Boardwalk just reopened this year after being devastated by Hurrican Sandy in 2012.
Central Avenue has stayed much the same over the last thirty years, yet elected officials hope their storefront beautification efforts will help bring new businesses into the community.