On Monday, the City Planning Commission (CPC) certified the de Blasio administration’s rezoning application for downtown Far Rockaway, making Far Rockaway the second neighborhood rezoning, after East New York, to begin formal public review.
By comparison, it happened quietly. While the East New York certification session was interrupted by protests, the only noise at Far Rockaway’s session was the delighted clapping from city staff. In fact, no one from the neighborhood appeared to be present.
The city also quietly released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on Friday, a document describing the potential impacts of the proposal on a variety of categories, from business displacement to day care use. The entire file can be accessed through the CEQR Database using CEQR Number 16DME010Q.
Over the next seven months, as required by the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the Rockaway community board, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and the City Planning Commission will issue their recommendations on the city’s rezoning proposal for the neighborhood, with the City Council casting the ultimate vote.
The rezoning recommendations are part of a larger plan for the neighborhood crafted by the Economic Development Corporation in response to recommendations from local Councilmember Donovan Richards and a team of neighborhood organizations. EDC’s planning process has progressed rapidly since the summer, outpacing many of the administration’s other neighborhood studies.
A variety of questions from Commissioners
At the Monday meeting, officials from the Department of City Planning (DCP), which is working with EDC to design the rezoning, described Far Rockaway as a majority black, low-income community suffering from a history of disinvestment—a place that has long awaited the city’s attention.
“The community has certainly given us their input in a really thoughtful manners in about a year of community engagement,” said John Young, head of DCP’s Queens Office. He added that he sensed the city’s neighborhood plan “really touched [the community], has really touched Councilman Richards, and has really been important in saying that, ‘your community is important to the city of New York.'”
EDC’s rezoning would increase allowable residential and commercial density in the area, with buildings as high as 15 stories at the center of the rezoning area (bounded by Cornaga Avenue to the south; Beach 22nd Street, Beach Channel Drive and Redfern Avenue to the west and northwest; Gateway Boulevard to the southeast; and Central Avenue and Hassock Street to the east and northeast) and shorter buildings along the periphery. The proposal would also create a special district to ensure the creation of new open spaces and active ground floor uses, and to adjust** parking requirements to match auto-use rates in the area.
Levels and depths of affordable housing are yet unknown. The rezoning would ensure all future housing development is subject to the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, which requires that 20 to 30 percent of units are rent-restricted. The city has also proposed redeveloping two publicly owned sites with 100 percent rent restricted housing.
In addition, the city intends to create an Urban Renewal Area (URA), using negotiations or eminent domain to acquire and redevelop a large underutilized shopping center, a few adjacent storefronts and five* adjacent residencies. Officials say the URA will be redeveloped with a new street grid, commercial and community facilities and a substantial amount of affordable housing. For the purposes of an environmental assessment, the city estimates that 50 percent of the units in the URA would be affordable. While the Urban Renewal Area will become public land—and some advocates say public land should be only be used strictly for the development of affordable housing—the city says it wants to balance maximizing affordable housing with what officials perceive is the neighborhood’s interest in economic diversity.
City Planning commissioners requested information about the five* houses that would be condemned, questioned whether there would be enough parking to accommodate consumers arriving by car from neighboring areas, and asked whether downtown Far Rockaway, with its commuting challenge, would really be able to attract new residents and private developers. One commissioner even expressed concern that the proposal might fail to draw more affluent residents, remaining a segregated, low-income enclave.
DCP’s Brendan Pillar justified adding residential density to the area, noting that the MTA is considering ways to improve transit access, that EDC’s is adding a new Rockaway ferry line, and that the rezoning area is outside of the 500-year flood zone.
He also said that developers have already expressed interest in the area, with “tremendous turnout” for a Request for Proposals released for one of the city-owned sites.
The city expects the proposal will increase economic integration in the area by bringing more affluent people to the neighborhood as well as securing permanently affordable housing through mandatory inclusionary housing.
Density could have adverse impacts
At a September hearing, residents showed unanimous support for commercial revitalization, but some voiced objections to the more than 3,000 units of housing that the project could bring. There was support for converting one of the public lots into a community garden instead of housing. Stakeholders also disagreed about the affordability levels for the proposed housing.
The DEIS released Friday contains the same number of units, and descriptions of both public lots remains the same, though city officials said they are still open to alternative plans for those sites.
Seventeen residents and 29 businesses may be directly displaced by the redevelopment, according to the DEIS. The city does not expect the proposal will lead to secondary displacement triggered by rising rents. According to the DEIS, Far Rockaway, like East New York, has a weak market, and a rezoning will first lead to the creation of a substantial amount of affordable housing. Furthermore, the DEIS argues that the eventual creation of market-rate housing will not exacerbate displacement because only 13 percent of residents live in non-regulated housing and are rent-burdened. (Critics say the city regularly underestimates the threat of displacement by not taking into account the harassment faced by rent-stabilized tenants and the potential exacerbation of gentrification caused by a rezoning.)
The DEIS does note, however, that the rezoning could lead to a deficit of 11 acres of open space, stresses on traffic and transit, and shortage of 181 childcare seats. The city says they are working with the appropriate agencies to mitigate these effects, but that it’s possible not all adverse impacts will be eliminated. In addition, the city says that the project will result in a high level of construction noise that cannot be entirely mitigated.
Councilman Richards heralded the launch of public review, while also calling for some of the impacts of the plan to be addressed.
“Today was an important step, but now it is time to roll up our sleeves and look at how we can make this the most inclusive plan possible by including improvements for transportation, a reasonable amount of density, adequate parking, appropriately affordable units and additional school seats,” he said in an e-mail to City Limits.
* Clarification: The original version of this article said that seven houses and seven residencies are affected. In fact, five houses in which an estimated seven units exist are affected.
** Correction: The original version of the article said parking requirements would be reduced. In fact, they will be reduced in some areas and increased in others.