Road Map For Action: $91 Million For Far Rock Development
By Elizabeth Holzer
Originally published at The Wave on August 26, 2016.
“Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of downtown Far Rockaway,” trumpeted Councilman Donovan Richards, as he announced the interagency Roadmap for Action on Aug. 19 at the newly completed Beach 20th Street Plaza during the height of a heatwave.
The $91 million commitment from the de Blasio administration is the largest investment in Downtown Far Rockaway in decades and the comprehensive plan is the culmination of nine months of collective work by a mosaic of city organizations.
In November 2015, Richards convened the Far Rockaway Working Group that united an array of elected officials to push for revitalization of neglected economic corridors of the neighborhood.
“Today this coalition makes good on the promise to restore downtown Far Rockaway back to the mecca it once was 30 years ago.” Richards explained. The Councilman went on to describe Far Rockaway as a casualty of hopelessness and disinvestment which caused a lack of infrastructure, open space, and employment opportunities.
Richards hopes the Roadmap for Action will right these wrongs.
“I can promise you that the bounced checks of promises that were written out to this community in the past are long gone,” Richards said of the economic and moral debt owed to the residents of Far Rockaway.
Beginning immediately, the Roadmap for Action will aggressively revive downtown with a five pronged approach — housing, transportation and public space, economic development, community services and culture, and land use and zoning are all issues tackled by the ambitious umbrella plan.
“Some will say that they’ve heard this story before,” said Richards. “My response to them is that you’ve never seen $91 million invested in Downtown Far Rockaway. Nor have you seen just about every commissioner in New York City out here on a sunny morning.”
In February 2016 the Far Rockaway Working Group penned a letter to the de Blasio administration laying out proposals for a new future for Far Rockaway. According to the group, Richard’s rigorous and active involvement in the community played a vital role in creating the Roadmap for Action.
It’s a hybrid of short and long term projects for Far Rockaway. A facelift for blighted businesses along commercial corridors is already underway.
Next year, the city will break ground on a new recreation center, new sidewalks, and a new public library designed by the internationally renowned, boutique architecture studio, Snøhetta.
There are 25 distinct actions laid out in the plan. Expanded public WiFi, more trees and lighting, revamping the Sorrentino Recreation Center, and an expanded streetscape, are just a few of the specific goals of the coalition.
But the Roadmap for Action aims to address more than aesthetics.
Maria Torres-Springer, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, also spoke at the conference. The NYCEDC is a quasi-governmental agency responsible for developments across the city.
Torres-Springer explains that the corporation tries to approach projects in a comprehensive way, stating the NYCEDC goals as, “reestablishing the area as the commercial and transportation hub of the peninsula, repositioning the area as a mixed-use district, activating the public realm with new connections and new open space, improving quality of life through access to services and jobs, and building the capacity of local community based organizations.”
Although no specifics have been announced, the plan also hopes to expand arts and culture organizations and create multi-generational public works programs aimed at keeping existing residents and attracting new ones.
Far Rockaway started out as a summer destination for wealthy city-dwellers in the early part of 19th century. Property value grew and it developed into a year round anchor for the peninsula during the early 20th century. Despite this unique history, Far Rockaway fell into a steep decline after WW2. Businesses shuttered, public housing was built at an abnormally high concentration, and abandoned public projects became dumping grounds.
Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder, who was born and raised in Far Rockaway, spoke to the decades-long disinvestment of the neighborhood during Saturday’s conference, which will likely be his last public appearance while in office.
“I’m now raising my kids in a neighborhood where sadly right now there are places I don’t want them to go. We need to change that. We need to change the atmosphere. We should all be comfortable and feel safe in our own backyards. We should want to be here.”
Goldfeder described the hollowing out of Long Island as local communities die and young people migrate to areas with more opportunity.
“Our goal is to make this community great so our kids want to stay here and for generations to come.”
Congressman Gregory Meeks delivered an emotional speech marked by piercing applause.
“No one has a beach front like we do, no one has transportation like we do, no one has the people like we do. By bringing us all together we will show that this jewel of New York will shine.”
Meeks noted that past administrations had ignored the peninsula but we applauded the current group of elected officials for coming together for Far Rockaway.
“What you see here is everybody together — that’s how you get things done.”
A controversial component of the Roadmap for Action and of all of New York City is, of course, housing — specifically affordable housing.
Earlier this year the City Council approved the rigorous Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) amendment which requires the creation of permanent, affordable housing for new developments and rezoning. City Planning Commission Chairman, Carl Weisbrod, describes the Roadmap for Action as, “the most impactful Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program in the entire nation.”
However, the public voiced their concerns over recent scandals surrounding affordable housing and the de Blasio administration.
A rezoning effort in upper Manhattan that promised affordable housing was shelved earlier this month after community protests over rezoning issues. Housing and Urban Development calculates New York City’s median income using the city and three wealthier suburban counties meaning below market rate doesn’t necessarily equate to affordable for many New Yorkers.
More recently, protestors flooded the streets of the East Village in response to the announcement that five historic buildings which contain affordable housing will be demolished to make way for an upscale hotel. The property is owned by David Lichtenstein, CEO of one of the largest privately held real estate companies in the U.S. and mayoral appointee to the NYCEDC Board of Directors.
Torres-Springer says the NYCEDC Board of Directors doesn’t have any financial interests in the Far Rockaway Roadmap for Action development.
Councilman Richards explained that opposition is natural in any process.
“I would rather not be elected than to let this place remain the way that it is. If I’m the sacrificial lamb here, which I don’t think I will be, then I’m prepared to lose the seat because the people of this community deserve better.”
The Far Rockaway Working Group encourages the public to attend an information session to be held Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 7:00 p.m., at Brian Piccolo Middle School 53, 10–45 Nameoke St. and Bayport Place, Far Rockaway.