The Economic Development Corporation’s proposed rezoning for Downtown Far Rockaway is making its way through the seven-month public review process known as ULURP. In March, Community board 14 approved the rezoning with a host of conditions, from lower densities to the creation of a new school, and sent it to Borough President Melinda Katz for review.
At a hearing on Thursday, Katz indicated support for the overall objectives of the plan, calling the planning partners “wonderful agencies” and noting she understood the “importance” of the project, but she said she wanted to explore the density issues raised by the community board and was disturbed by a point of process she found unusual: At eight o’clock the night before her hearing, she said, the de Blasio administration had announced changes to the rezoning.
“I don’t recall this ever happening before,” she said. “I just want somebody to explain to me the technicality of this and how this happens.”
The changes were made through an “A-Application”—an amendment to the rezoning proposal, which is permitted so long as changes occur ahead of the City Planning Commission hearing on the Environmental Impact Statement, according to John Young of the Department of City Planning.
City representatives explained that they were slightly expanding the borders of the rezoning area after hearing about two sites that property owners wanted to develop with an upzoning. The city is also preserving a commercial overlay that the original proposal was slated to remove.
The city also made adjustments to respond to community concerns about height, such as by adding new building height limits along Mott Ave, Nameoke Street and Redfern Avenue. The amendments also introduce rules to allow flexibility that will improve the design of the developments, the city says. In one place, a revision will reduce the required amount of publicly accessible open space.
Altogether, the changes are expected to result in the addition of 96 units of housing and almost 12,000 square feet of retail, as well as a loss of almost 6,000 square feet of open space (though one of the owners on the newly added sites has suggested he might voluntarily provide more than 6,000 square feet of open space). According to the EDC’s environmental analysis, the proposal will not result in any additional environmental impacts, but as the original proposal already had a significant adverse impact on open space, the amendment will likely raise some hairs. There will be an opportunity for the community board to make comments on the changes, but not to vote again.
Katz noted that the community board had already called for fewer housing units.
“You’ve got to figure out where to take it from, guys,” she said, recommending the city find a way to reduce density in another part of the proposal.
Devaney Brown, representing Councilmember Donovan Richards, and Assembly member Stacy Amato offered conditioned support for the proposal and an interest in seeing the community board’s priorities addressed. Brown raised concerns about building heights, school seats and open space, while Amato mentioned schools, parking, traffic, and how the city would ensure a diversity of retail establishments.
“When you do something at eight o’clock at night, you just kicked confidence out of the conversation,” she added.
Several residents in the audience expressed greater consternation in their testimonies.
“My fear is that the plan is going to…basically leave my community just like Harlem…very gentrified and very exclusive feeling,” said resident Alexis Smallwood, who said she used to live in Harlem and no longer feels welcome there. She called for the use of a community land trust to ensure continued affordability, and for a reduction in new buildings, which, in addition to causing gentrification, she said would change the character of the community.
She was also one of four residents who testified against the city’s proposal to give a vacant lot owned by the Department of Sanitation to a developer for the creation of eight units of below-market housing. The group said they have collected 400 petitions in favor of a proposal to turn the land over to the Parks Department for the creation of a community garden, compost space, and play space for children. They said their proposal jives with the community board’s vision of using the space as a playground or park.
“The community needs an opportunity to grow their own food. A green space would allow community members to come together to do this so they can change the course of their health. It’s a dire need,” said resident Allison Jeffrey.
Another group of four residents—one from Far Rockaway, and the other three from low-rise neighborhoods farther west on the island—expressed opposition to the rezoning on the grounds that the area doesn’t need any more housing density. They presented their own power point presentation, “The Far Rockaway Village: Destruction of a Town.”
“People said we need parking, we need better access to downtown. Nobody said we need housing,” said Eugene Falik, the Far Rockaway resident. He said that the city did not have a sufficient plan to meet other goal of the plan like revitalizing commerce or improving transportation, and that the additional housing would exacerbate the area’s lack of parking. With Rita Stark, owner of the long-abandoned shopping center in the area, now deceased and her estate showing a willingness to fix it up, he also questioned the necessity of the city getting permission to take the area by eminent domain (the city says it need all the tools in its toolbox to revitalize the site).
Fellow presenter Phyllis Rudnick put it in financial terms: “If I have to sell my house, what could I possibly say to a buyer?” she said.
Support for the plan came from the Queens Chamber of Commerce and Eiden Consulting, a firm specialized in energy-efficient design and urban renewal, both of which heralded the opportunities for revitalization. A representative from the property workers union 32BJ also supported the plan and asked for commitments that new buildings pay prevailing wage.
EDC representatives said they were continuing to engage with the community board and had committed to the creation of a community advisory group to monitor development going forward. They said they had spoken to the garden advocates and were “hopeful that we can find a way to accommodate some of the community’s needs” on the vacant Department of Sanitation site. While they chose to defend their plan for parking, they noted they were working with the MTA to find mitigations to impacts on transit, potentially by adding another bus. And they said their plan would contribute to commercial revitalization because that they had special control over the retail offerings in the Urban Renewal Area portion of the project. On prior occasions, the city has said that residential density is necessary to support commercial growth.
Smallwood’s concerns about the potential gentrification of the area were not discussed. It is yet undetermined how much of the new housing will be rent-restricted, but the community board has asked that 60 percent be below-market, while EDC’s figures appear to indicate that slightly less than half the housing will be.
A City Planning Commission hearing on the proposal is expected to take place on May 24. Stay tuned for more details.