On Monday, the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises approved a modified version of the Economic Development Corporation’s rezoning proposal for Downtown Far Rockaway, with Rockaway Councilmember Donovan Richards touting over $126 million in city investments for the area included as part of the deal.
The rezoning now goes to the Land Use Committee and the full Council for a final vote, but it’s now all but certain that Downtown Far Rockaway will become the second of Mayor de Blasio’s approved neighborhood rezonings—and this one with much less controversy than the first in East New York. One reason might be the widely held sentiment that Far Rockaway is in need of serious investment; another might be the degree of certainty that a large amount of affordable housing will be part of the plan.
“The lack of city investment for nearly 40 years created cynicism in government and a life of hopelessness for the young men and women I grew up with, whose limited options to educational programming and jobs created a conduit straight into the prison industrial complex,” Richards said at the meeting. “Today’s agreement to rezone Downtown Far Rockaway is much bigger than just about the words ‘density,’ ‘bulk’ and ‘height.’ This rezoning gauges and rectifies the compounding issues that have plagued this community for decades.”
The $126 million in new investments includes $91 million that was earlier committed by the mayor, but does not include a variety of other recent city investments, private funding and federal funding. A more detailed breakdown of the $126 million can be viewed here and a description of all the benefits associated with the plan could be seen here.
Some local critics of the plan will be disappointed that Richards did not take scissors to the plan’s proposed density. While community board members and others have expressed concerns with the extent of the upzoning and the potential impact of a population increase on things like schools and parking, others have argued that the area needs as much affordable housing as it can get, as well as more people to support commercial growth. Richards clearly sided with the latter, though he had the city withdraw its proposal to redevelop a publicly owned site in the area with eight apartments and instead invest in the creation of a park.
The Department of Education has said schools in the area are operating under capacity and that a new school will not be necessary to accommodate the rezoning, but Richards and the de Blasio administration reached an agreement that the city would reserve a space in the redevelopment area for the creation of a new school in case the Department of Education changes its determination and finds a need for one within the next ten years.
In a document released Monday, the city also announces that “While there are several scenarios under which development in the URA may proceed, it is the City’s goal to facilitate a compelling mixed-use, mixed-income, phased 100% affordable development.”
The Urban Renewal Area is a set of underutilized land parcels that the city intends to redevelop, potentially by acquiring the land through eminent domain. Earlier, the city had estimated that around 50 percent of the housing in the URA would be affordable. With the city now publicly aiming for 100 percent, the total amount of affordable housing that could be created as part of the plan might be at least 1,850 of the 3,123 apartments that the city expects the rezoning will generate, or at least 60 percent of the total housing, (and potentially more through the use of city subsidies on private sites).
The city hasn’t offered a complete commitment to 100 percent affordability because ownership of the site is still under negotiation. The current private owner of many of the parcels, the estate of Rita Stark, is in talks to sell the land to a private developer. If the properties are purchased by likely buyer Phipps Houses, a non-profit affordable housing developer, then the land will be developed with 100 percent affordable housing with support from the city. If it is not purchased by Phipps, then the city will expend the $91 million allotted by the mayor to purchase the land itself and likely develop 100 percent affordable housing. It’s also possible that another developer with their own intentions might buy the land, but Richard’s office says anyone who purchases the properties would seek to use a city subsidy program because the area does not yet support market-rate development.
Assuming the city can meet its goal of 100 percent affordability in the URA, that would be a great deal more than what was offered to East New York, where the city could only guarantee that 1,200 of the 6,312 units created as part of the East New York rezoning would be affordable (in addition to whatever could be potentially created on private sites using city subsidy).
In the document, the city also committed to multiple initiatives—some ongoing and some new—related to the protection of existing affordable housing and existing tenants, transportation and community services, streetscaping and sewer infrastructure, open spaces and schools, and economic development and jobs. Initiatives to promote local hiring and the use of Minority and Women-Owned Businesses are included, but Project Labor Agreements with unions and apprenticeships are not mentioned.
Some other highlights include the city’s commitment to explore the creation of a business incubator space, the piloting of a shuttle service to take downtown Far Rockaway residents to the ferry landing, and an addition of $10 million for ongoing capital work in the neighborhood’s schools. The city will also continue its advocacy to the MTA to increase transit options.
“Through this plan, Downtown Far Rockaway is finally getting the investment it deserves, with new jobs and mixed-income housing, open space and community facilities,” said EDC chief James Patchett, in a statement. “We are proud to have collaborated with Council Member Richards and community leaders to develop a vision for a more vibrant and equitable Downtown Far Rockaway, and to now make that vision a reality.”