The proposed downtown Far Rockaway rezoning, Mayor de Blasio’s second neighborhood rezoning proposal, is making its way through the Uniform Land Use Procedure (ULURP), and Queens Community Board 14 is preparing to weigh in with recommendations before its April deadline.
On Monday night, the board’s land use committee invited the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to present its rezoning plan for Downtown Far Rockaway, which accompanies a larger $91 million plan to revitalize the area.
EDC representatives tried to address concerns that have come up at prior meetings, especially the impact of increased housing density on the area. They emphasized that city agencies are about to jumpstart projects to improve sewer and road infrastructure, and stressed that the community’s strong demand for parking would be satisfied by the 1,200 parking spaces in their plan.
While the city cannot control the timeline for rezoned privately owned sites, EDC staff said city-owned portions of the rezoning area, as well as the areas the city hopes to purchase from property owners—using eminent domain as a last resort—and then redevelop as an Urban Renewal Area, would be rebuilt slowly over four phases.* The first phase would yield about 170 residential units and the next three phases would each yield about 500 to 600 units. In response to concerns that the Urban Renewal Area could include buildings of up to 15 stories, the administration promised that only two buildings would be that high.
Many land-use committee members, however, still had concerns about the proposal, which they ultimately boiled down into 13 points that they will suggest the full board adopt. These qualms fall into five larger categories:
1. It’s too damn dense
The city says the rezoning could lead to the creation of as many as 3,035 units on public and private sites. Many board members fear this would lead to overcrowding in schools, a deficit of open space and playgrounds and stress on sewer infrastructure that is already vulnerable to flooding. While some board members called for additional investments, others emphasized the practicality of downsizing the rezoning.
“All of these questions could be solved so much easier by potentially being a somewhat smaller project,” board member Mordechai Dicker said.
EDC representatives said they were studying a less dense alternative of the rezoning and were open to adjustments, but also wanted to ensure the rezoning brought in enough people to sustain new businesses—and enough height to ensure developers were attracted to build.
Ultimately, the land-use committee will recommend to the board the creation of a school in the rezoning area, new daycare and health facilities, attention to sewage infrastructure and the Rockaway sewage treatment plant, a height limit of eight stories, and a lower-density zoning in some parts of the district, among other measures.
2. Use local union labor
Board members also stressed that the redevelopment project must lead to local jobs at union wages. One board member said that the redevelopment should follow the model of Build It Back, the Hurricane Sandy recovery program that requires contractors to work with unions, and unions to hire and train a certain percentage of local residents.
EDC representatives said it was too early to say what labor agreements the redevelopment projects will use. Yet the city may have more leverage to control labor standards in this rezoning because such a large amount of the area will happen on city-owned or city-purchased property.
The committee plans to recommend that the city establish Project Labor Agreements with unions for the redevelopment projects.
3. Protect us from displacement
Board member Sonia Moise fears rezoning could lead to gentrification and the displacement of existing residents. She asked the city to ensure that credit history didn’t become a barrier to participation in lotteries for the rent-restricted housing created by the rezoning, and called for affordable homeownership opportunities that could help long-time residents create strong roots in the community.
Other board members asked whether the city could institute a policy requiring that 75 percent of all rent-restricted housing be set aside for community residents. At least one board member begged to differ, arguing that one of the goals of the rezoning was to bring in new residents with disposal income from other areas of the city.
City representatives said that the city already requires that each housing lottery give preference for 50 percent of units to people in the local community district, nuy that a 75 percent requirement would be considered discriminatory against people living outside the district and violate federal fair-housing rules (an interesting argument, since the city’s current 50 percent policy is also facing a court challenge for violating fair housing rules). In addition, EDC staff said that there were limited subsidy programs available to support affordable homeownership opportunities, but that they would continue exploring the issue.
The committee plans to recommend to the board that 40 percent of the new housing is homeownership opportunities, that 60 percent is rent-restricted, and that of the rent-restricted housing, 20 percent is for families making $24,480 and that the other 80 percent is for families making $48,960 and above.
4. Make it accessible
Some board members worried that without adequate investments in bus service—and without adequate parking—no one from the rest of the island would come to support the new commercial establishments. One said it was “discriminatory” for the city to assume that low-income people needed less parking than richer people, and argued that the assumption does not hold true for Far Rockaway residents.
While emphasizing that the commercial spaces in the new developments would be small-scale and serve local residents, not destination retail, EDC staff said they were in discussion with the MTA and the Department of Transportation about increasing public-transit service.
Ultimately, the committee will recommend to the board that the city institute a 75 percent parking requirement—requiring 75 spaces for every 100 people.
5. Ensure long-term accountability
On public sites and in the Urban Renewal Area, the city plans to issue Request for Proposals (RFPs) for each stage of the redevelopment, and will require developers to provide some space for public amenities and the creation of new public streets and plazas, though it is still unclear who will be required to pay for the maintenance of such open spaces. At each stage of the process, the city has committed to coming back to the community for feedback.
Noting that redevelopment will take many years and involve multiple phases, committee members asked for the creation of an entity made of residents and board members to provide oversight to the rezoning over time. EDC staff expressed an openness to this idea.
*Correction: Originally said the city hoped to condemn some properties in part of the rezoning area to create an Urban Renewal Area. In fact, the city hopes to use negotiations to purchase those parcels, using eminent domain only as a last resort.