Adi Talwar

Part of the estate of Rita Stark, which will be redeveloped with mixed-use income-targeted housing as part of the Downtown Far Rockaway rezoning plan.

At times, Far Rockaway feels like another decade, or maybe another city. There are an abundance of massive vacant properties overgrown with weeds and blanketed with plastic and cardboard trash. Flocks of birds soar over the parking lot outside the mostly vacant strip mall.

But it’s also an area now on the verge of a major transition.

Half a year ago, the City Council passed the rezoning of Downtown Far Rockaway, the second neighborhood rezoning to be approved under the de Blasio administration. The rezoning permitted higher, bigger buildings within a 23-block area of downtown and is expected to result in the creation of over 3,100 apartments, nearly 164,600 gross square feet of retail space, and over 80,900 gross square feet of community facility space. It also came with a package of investments in neighborhood services and infrastructure.

Local councilmember Donovan Richards says that the rezoning has already sent a jolt to real-estate forces in the area. Developers, he said, including some big ones, are “knocking on our door.” There are budding plans for many of the area’s vacant lots. He’s noticing properties change hands: one 108-unit rent-stabilized building near the rezoning area was purchased for $12 million in 2014 and resold this February for $22 million.

As former chair of the subcommittee on zoning and franchises, Richards is well aware of the controversy that surrounded other rezonings like those in East New York and East Harlem, where many residents feared rezoning would exacerbate gentrification. Like in those neighborhoods, the Far Rockaway ZIP code is predominantly a community of color (69 percent), with many residents who live below the poverty line (21 percent)—a population that would indeed be vulnerable to rising rents. And rents, while still lower than in many parts of the city, have risen by upwards of 26 percent since 2000 while average household incomes have declined 6 percent, according to a city environmental analysis.

There were, however, fewer concerns raised about gentrification during the planning stages of the Far Rockaway rezoning and less opposition overall when compared to other rezonings. Certainly, some did have gentrification concerns or, conversely, worried about an influx of low-income renters. There were also concerns raised about the proposed housing density, the impact on local infrastructure, and the necessity of ensuring the rezoning created job opportunities for locals.

But in Richard’s opinion, Far Rockaway is one area where you can’t question the merits of a rezoning.

“The story sells itself—an area that has historically been abandoned,” he says, citing especially the need for more employment opportunities, for spaces where the community can gather and socialize, and for affordable housing.

Richards also says that it’s certain real-estate market pressures will increase, and that his big task now is “fighting to make sure we can protect what we have” by using city programs to lock in affordability for as many residents as possible. This includes, for instance, the 200 rental assistance vouchers for homeless families from the Rockaways to return to live in the community, to the construction of new 100 percent income-targeted buildings.

A wave of construction ahead

Independent of the rezoning, there have already been some notable changes in Far Rockaway in recent years. The mostly vacant shopping mall has some new tenants and part of its roof is being repaired. Near the Far Rockaway—Mott Avenue A train station, there are two developers building hotels.

The city’s plan for Far Rockaway includes several components that are all about to take off. A large lot jointly owned by the Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is to be redeveloped with 100 percent affordable housing, commercial and retail space. A developer is expected to be selected in the coming months.

Most significantly, the city’s threats to take the long-abandoned shopping mall from its owner through eminent domain have paid off. The huge property is owned by the estate of the recently-deceased property owner Rita Stark, and earlier this month the estate reached an agreement to lease the property to Phipps, an affordable housing developer. Phipps plans to redevelop the site with 700 units of income-targeted housing as well as 90,000 square feet of commercial space, with Stark’s estate overseeing the retail portion.

This is the first phase of a larger project that Richards says will include a total of 1700 units, and his wish is that all those apartments will be subsidized by the Department of the Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) under the terms of the Extremely Low Income and Low Income Affordability (ELLA) program. The shopping mall will likely be demolished around August, and the first phase of development is projected to be complete by 2021.

As City Limits has reported, eminent domain is also a legal option for about a dozen small property owners located next to Stark’s site, but is only a “last resort” tool to ensure development happens, Richards says.

A number of other city-sponsored investment projects will also be getting off the ground soon. For instance, this fall the Department of Design and Construction will begin replacing the neighborhood’s single-story Queens Public Library branch with a new two-story facility. And in the summer of 2019, construction will start on the Streetscape Reconstruction project, which will introduce a new public plaza and a new gathering space as well as include the installation of new storm and sewer infrastructure.

Furthermore, there are several churches in various stages of planning mixed-use affordable housing projects on their property and a couple other sites where big developers are planning large mixed-use, affordable or supportive-housing buildings. The rezoning requires active ground floor uses along major corridors and allows second-floor community facility or retail uses in several areas. Richard’s office says it’s advocating for the inclusion of both community facility and commercial space whenever possible.

Richards says all the development in the pipeline so far is to be 100 percent affordable, though it’s too early to say how affordability will be defined. “We’re always fans of ELLA,” says Richards. ELLA projects require units to be affordable to specified ranges of income tiers, including at least 40 percent of the units affordable to families making below $42,950 for a family of three, with percentages specifically for the homeless and/or for families making below $25,770. The highest priced unit in an ELLA building must be affordable to a family of three making $85,900. It’s considered the HPD subsidy program that produces the most “deeply” affordable buildings, though some advocates in other rezoning neighborhoods have said they’d like it to reach even lower incomes.

The lower the income levels served by an affordable project, the higher the cost to the city. Will HPD be willing to commit so much of its subsidy dollars just to Far Rockaway? Richards said that while he’ll “continue to push” HPD for commitments, he’s hopeful because he senses HPD is making Far Rockaway a priority thanks to the relative lack of community opposition and because the area’s development potential means the agency can achieve a lot of “bang for the buck.”

The city’s environmental analysis of the Far Rockaway rezoning stated that “Market-rate rents in Downtown Far Rockaway currently do not support new, unsubsidized construction of multifamily housing, and it is expected that this condition will continue in the near future,” resulting in the near term production of lots of subsidized housing before the market heats up.

The councilmember says that there is, in fact, already some market-rate development outside the rezoning area, including a property on Seagirt Avenue and another in Arverne—and he expects more to come over time. While market-rate rents remain relatively low, however, developers are still interested in working with the city to do 100 percent affordable housing—which is why its important to Richards to get many shovels in the ground now.

“I’m not pushing for market, but if there is some, I’m not opposed to it,” Richards says.

In the map below, click on the icons to see information about plans underway for various sites in Downtown Far Rockaway. Red camera icons have pictures, courtesy of photographer Adi Talwar. Or scroll down to keep reading.

Concerns about jobs, affordability, traffic

A steering committee of local stakeholders, including many of the same local organizations and stakeholders that originally invited the rezoning effort like the Redfern Houses Tenant Association and the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation, remains engaged to keep track of the rezoning’s progress. In the neighborhood at large, one finds excitement and fear—and people who haven’t heard what’s on the way.

Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska says that given the decades of neglect in the area, there’s a “we’ll believe it when we see it,” mentality on the board.

“Mostly what I hear is positive. … People want to shop here instead of going out to Nassau County and Brooklyn,” Gaska says. “I also hear people worried about traffic and the lack of parking, which I think is a legitimate concern.”

As for the potential impact on existing businesses, “it’s going to make everybody step up their game and there will be some displacement, which is unfortunate, but you have to take the good with the bad,” he says. “The [current] choice of retail is not very good…There’s a million hair-and-nail places and 99-cent stores … That said, we don’t have a lot of empty storefronts. They’re making a living.”

Allison Jeffrey, a homeowner who lives adjacent to the rezoning area, lead a campaign to prevent the city from developing housing on a public lot across the street from her house and instead make the lot into a community garden. Ultimately the city agreed to turn it into a park, and Jeffrey is pleased, though she still thinks it should include space for a small food garden. Of the rezoning, she is generally positive.

“Business is picking up. I see that clearly. I see that a lot of minority-owned businesses are improving … I like that our streets will be better. We have a lot of potholes,” Jeffrey says. But parking and traffic are going to be issues, and housing prices are also rising, she said. “That’s a great thing for a homeowner for myself. However, the affordability for the people trying to buy?—It’s a double edged sword.”

One outspoken critic of the rezone, Arverne resident Alexis Smallwood, is still concerned that the rezoning will pave the way for gentrification and that development deals will be executed in secrecy with large developers. Laura Jurewicz of Far Rockaway Youth Task Force, a community-based youth advocacy organization, says how exactly “affordability” will be defined is also a continuing worry.

“This area does need development, but people are just generally scared about gentrification and being priced out,” she says.

In contrast, Bayswater resident Eugene Falik, another strong opponent to the rezoning, is still concerned that the rezoning will concentrate too much low-income housing in one area without adequate services, and that with inadequate parking and other problems for drivers, Far Rockaway still won’t be able to attract residents of surrounding neighborhoods to shop.

Then there are those anxious about jobs.

Andre Wilford is an auto-technician at Artie’s Collision, on one of the other properties adjacent to Stark’s that will be incorporated into a later phase of the Phipps development (where eminent domain remains a “last resort” tool). Wilford told City Limits that change in the area will probably be a good thing, but he also doesn’t want to lose his job.

Meanwhile Kenya Hayward, a resident of the nearby public housing complex Redfern and certified construction worker, had not heard of the rezoning but says (of projects prior to the rezoning) it’s been “very difficult to be employed by some of these outside contractors—seems like they’re bringing their people with them.”

The city’s plan says it will conduct enhanced outreach to neighborhood organizations and residents to help locals gain jobs generated by the rezoning through the Workforce1 and HireNYC programs, and Richards says the participation of local workforce organizations will be key. Still, advocates citywide have concerns that there are insufficient mechanisms in place to require private developers to hire locally and to fund apprenticeship-programs that lead to career-track, well-paid construction jobs.

Two other residents of Redfern, and three store operators on Mott Street, had not heard much about the rezoning. Among them was pharmacy owner and Long Island resident Sam Pater, who said business was fine as is. “We don’t need change,” he said.