In what came as a surprise to some, Queens Community Board 14 voted on Wednesday night to approve with conditions the city’s proposed rezoning of downtown Far Rockaway by a vote of 26 to 2. In the past, several board members have critiqued the additional housing density the rezoning could bring.
The vote followed a public hearing in which 10 people voiced concerns about an influx of apartments (more than 3,000 in the original proposal), the plan’s lack of a new school or new hospital to accommodate that increased population, and the difficulty of creating a safe evacuation plan for so many people in the event of another hurricane.
But another 11 people voiced support of the rezoning, with many repeating the comment that downtown Far Rockaway is currently an “eye-sore” long overdue for change. Among them was a representative from St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, who said the hospital had its own expansion initiatives. Representatives from Councilman Donovan Richards’ office also voiced their support for a rezoning, though noting the Councilman would continue negotiating to ensure the plan was improved. Two others spoke in favor of ensuring the rezoning action also included good job and apprenticeship opportunities and two more asked that a public lot in the rezoning area not be sold to a developer but retained by the city for a community garden and compost site.
The board’s “yes with conditions” sought to address some of the concerns raised by skeptics and shared by several board members. In the core of the redevelopment area, where the city has proposed allowing buildings with a maximum height of 12 stories as well as two buildings with a maximum of 15 stories, the board asked for a more modest upzoning that would limit height to ten stories.
Outside of that core area, where the city has proposed buildings with a maximum height of nine to ten stories, the board asked that the maximum height be four stories.
In addition, the board asked that the city use project-labor agreements that would require workers receive the city’s prevailing construction wage, and strike community benefits agreements with developers.
On the infrastructure front, the board asked the city to invest in sewer and water upgrades, widen the intersection of Mott Avenue and 21st Street, and create a new school, a new playground and park and a municipal parking lot, and reserve space in the rezoning area for healthcare and daycare facilities.
Affordable housing was also on the board’s radar screen. The board’s conditions specified that it wants 60 percent of the apartments to be rent-restricted, and of those, 20 percent to be affordable to families of three making below $24,480 and 80 percent affordable for families making $48,960 or more. They asked that 40 percent of the total apartments be homeownership opportunities, and for a requirement that there be a parking space for three of every four apartments.
Last but not least, the board asked that a committee composed of community stakeholders be organized to provide oversight over the course of the rezoning and redevelopment.
Much of the discussion on Wednesday night revolved around the question of whether there is a reason for the city to encourage housing growth in the Far Rockaways—which some people would like to see remain a less-dense suburb of the crowded city—beyond that of fulfilling citywide housing goals.
Representatives from the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) said that the more than 50,000 applications the city recently received in a lottery for 100 affordable apartments in Far Rockaway is evidence of the strong desire for affordable housing in the area. They also said that adding new people at a mix of incomes was crucial to supporting the commercial revitalization that stakeholders unanimously desire. Perhaps the greatest case for this argument was the testimony of barbershop owner Calvin Thompson, who complained that businesses have been suffering for decades because so few people come to Far Rockaway to shop.
“We need the business,” Thompson said. “Please, please approve this so these businesses can survive.”
Others, however, questioned whether the reason the downtown area has remained fallow for so long was because of a lack of shoppers or because the recently deceased landlord Rita Stark did not take interest in revitalizing her large shopping mall.
Ultimately, the board’s vote suggests an acceptance of EDC’s argument that the area needs some residential density, but a willingness to challenge just how much. Board member Khaleel Anderson, however, told City Limits after the meeting that while he thought the decrease in the density was fair, he is still thinking about whether the reduced density will allow the creation of enough affordable housing to meet the need in Far Rockaway.
It is not entirely clear how EDC will respond to all of the community board’s suggestions. Earlier in the evening, EDC representatives justified their chosen density levels and repeated that their analysis had not suggested the new population would require a new school, but they also expressed a willingness to keep negotiating on both subjects. They also expressed confidence in the parking requirements they’ve already laid forth, said the Department of Environmental Protection is already working on below-surface infrastructure improvements and explained that the city requires prevailing wages for construction on all city-owned parcels.
Over the coming months, the rezoning proposal will be considered by Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, followed by the City Planning Commission, and finally, the City Council—where by custom, Councilman Richards will wield all but total authority. Should the Council modify the proposal, it would head back to the Planning Commission. Were the Council vote contrary to the mayor’s wishes, he could veto their decision and force an override vote. (More on the ULURP process here.)
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