On The Record: Richards Visits The Wave

By Gail Johnson

Originally published at The Wave on December 23, 2016.

Councilman Donovan Richards visits The Wave’s offices to discuss Downtown Far Rockaway. Wave reporter Gail Johnson, Publisher Susan Locke, General Manager Sandy Bernstein, Managing Editor Mark Healey and Assistant Editor Daniel Offner (not pictured), all took part in the meeting.

Councilman Donovan Richards came to The Wave on Dec. 19 to discuss concerns of the Ad Hoc Committee of Community Board 14 about the rezoning of Downtown Far Rockaway.

On Dec. 14, the city released the Request For Proposals (RFP) on the Beach 21st Street Mixed-Use Development, and at the CB14 gathering, several questions were raised, including concerns about increasing population density with more housing, and a lack of concrete plans about amenities and parking. The Wave reached out to Richards, and instead of just issuing a statement, the Councilman came down to the newspaper’s offices on Rockaway Beach Boulevard to meet with the editorial staff.

A series of meeting with the community has helped give Richards several ideas for Downtown Far Rockaway. “We have heard from the community what they want and I will ask the developers to lock it in,” said Richards. Photos courtesy of Donovan Richards

The 42,500-square-foot piece of land is currently used as a DOT and MTA bus layover site. The city wants to rezone the area into a mixed-use development with retail stores, a community center and residential units as part of the Mayor’s controversial Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program for affordable housing.

The city is divided into three basic zoning districts: Residential (R), Commercial © and Manufacturing (M). The three basic districts are further divided into a range of lower-, mediumand higher-density residential, commercial and manufacturing districts to accommodate an extraordinary variety of building forms and permitted uses.

Richards, chair of the City Council’s zoning committee, said there has been no rezoning in downtown Far Rockaway since 1961.

“The current zoning in the area is limited to manufacturing and you can’t do anything commercially unless you get a variance,” said Richards.

The long-neglected downtown area has not attracted developers or “exciting” retail businesses, but Richards believes the new proposed changes have sent a message to the market and now there is no shortage of interested developers.”

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Draft to determine, evaluate and disclose the potential impacts on the quality of the human environment is due in late January of 2017 and the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) will also begin in January. The seven month process will involve input from the City Planning Commission, CB14 and the Queens Borough President.

“No proposals are made without changes,” said Richards. “I will listen to the legitimate concerns of the people. Zoning areas will be tweaked. Not everyone will be happy at the end of the day. If there is a counter proposal from the Community Board, I will be open to that conversation. There must be compromise. It cannot be all or nothing.”

Richards also said his position is that he is willing to negotiate up until the last moment to make sure a consensus can be made.

“All changes must come through my committee,” said Richards. “The cards are in the hands of the community and the local Councilman.”

Zoning opens up opportunities, explained Richards, and the Far Rockaway Shopping Center has the interest of several developers.

“We have heard from the community what they want and I will ask the developers to lock it in,” said Richards. “Now, Far Rockaway money is going to Nassau County, because the perceived image of the core of downtown is that there are no quality stores and the area is not safe. My goal is a live/work space core for downtown. Density similar to Long Island City which is thriving is ideal, not the density of Downtown Brooklyn.”

Unlike the mayor, Richards says he likes the idea of community charter schools.

“We are looking at particular spots to locate schools,” said Richards. “For grades K-8 we need more seats, it’s critical, we’re over capacity now, middle schools are a maybe and Far Rockaway High School has a lot of capacity. It suffers from a bad reputation. It must lose the stigma of safety issues because they have some exciting programs; some students are graduating with Associate Degrees.”

The plan also includes new streets for the downtown area. One will flow from North to South and the other from East to West. There will be a new public plaza space on Mott avenue between Central and Redfern Avenues. This, says Richards, will strengthen Mott Avenue as a walkable space.

“One of the new blocks will connect the A train to the Long Island Rail Road,” said Richards. “Most people don’t know the station is there. I am looking to bring City Ticket back connecting Far Rockaway to the LIRR and the Freedom Ticket so that a ride on the LIRR would be the price of a Metrocard. This is especially important to my Orthodox constituents. An East End ferry stop is planned and the satellite bus line will be extended.”

When the issue of parking or the lack thereof was brought up , his response was “parking is being looked at now, we will try to get as close to meet the need as we can, it’s a negotiation, there is no final proposal. (But) If you build nothing you get nothing. This is a historic time for Far Rockaway. There will not be another development on this scale for another 60 years.”

Richards says there’s another way to address density issues and help businesses thrive.

“Mixed use is a strategy for a community to be commercially viable,” said Richards. “If just one quarter of the residents who live above the commercial spaces shop there, the businesses will prosper.”

Richards also spoke of successful projects being built on the East End. The senior housing complex on Beach 32nd Street will feature lounges on each floor for senior socializing and the ground floor will house a geriatric medical site run by St. John’s Episcopal Hospital and a community center among other amenities. He also said there are solid plans for a hotel to come to Seagirt Boulevard. The development on Seagirt Boulevard between Beach 25th and Beach 26 Streets will house market-rate apartments, commercial spaces and a sit-down restaurant. The Beach 17th triangle will be all commercial with varied food choices, not only beach food, and will include Kosher cuisine.

“The $91.5 million is a base to work from. There will be $26 million to install storm sewers, $30 million for the plaza space, there is money for schools, transportation, and infrastructure. This sends a message to developers. Far Rockaway is neglected no more,” said Richards. “What we really need downtown is a ‘symbolic’ building. There is no ‘capitol building,’ a building that lets you know you are somewhere. Downtown needs a landmark building. If density is a problem, at least one tall building in the middle of the area. The EIS when complete will determine if deep shadows are cast, then set-backs would be required.”

Richards says at the end of the day, Far Rockaway is an inclusive beach.

“Where else on the East Coast can you live on the beach without being a millionaire?” said Richards. “I envision this as a place to live, work, eat, play, shop and go the beach.”