It wasn’t until the last 10 years that the future started to brighten. In the super-heated real estate market of the late 1990s, when homes across the five boroughs sold at record prices but land was increasingly hard to come by, the city turned its focus to the Rockaways. As part of its New Housing Marketplace Plan, the Bloomberg administration has committed to construct or preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing, which would provide homes to 500,000 people, by 2013. This is part of the mayor’s PlanNYC blueprint for growth, which is modeled on expectations of more than 1 million new residents by 2030.
Several thousand of these units will be in the Rockaways in the Arverne Urban Renewal Area, the HPD property held over from when city bulldozed the bungalows. According to Wendell Walters, HPD’s assistant commissioner for housing production, the goal was not limited to providing quality affordable housing. The HPD project also was intended to fuel private construction and resuscitate the housing market. This model has helped capitalize development in blighted neighborhoods across the city, from the south Bronx to east Harlem to central Brooklyn. (The city acquired large amounts of land in these areas in the 1970s and 80s because of land abandonment and disinvestment.) Recent HPD projects have brought quality affordable housing to market, and also given developers reason to invest in the community.
“Today ends 40 years of dashed hopes and deferred dreams for the Arverne community, and it opens a bright new chapter in the future of the Rockaways,” Mayor Bloomberg said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony the day the first residents moved into Arverne-by-the-Sea in May 2004. Arverne-by-the-Sea and Arverne East, each billion-dollar projects, as well as the much smaller Water’s Edge project, will create more than 4,000 affordable and high-end condo units. The developers selected by HPD are also building stores, parks, new roads, schools and sewers.
“This whole place was one empty lot, like a ghost town,” said Vincent Morales, a Parks Department employee who has owned a home near Arverne for 15 years. “Now there’s development everywhere. It’s a whole new place. Slowly but surely it feels like we’re becoming a real community.”
Local officials were exuberant that their community found its way into the city’s plans, but were far less concerned with creating affordable housing. Their primary goal was to build high quality housing that would appeal to middle class homeowners who would raise the area’s median income, level of civic participation, and voice in city and borough policy. For the most part, both sides have been successful, as families who are minorities, middle class, or both have bought homes and become active in the community.
“We realized that the only way to survive is by really bringing in people with spendable dollars,” said State Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer. “We agreed, let’s not move anybody out who has been here, but let's just kind of build up around them.”
But the success of Arverne – much of which is already sold out, according to the website – is only the beginning of the story. Much of the private development it triggered has failed, threatening to undo strides made in the last decade. Some residents are starting to fear that history is repeating itself.
From cash cow to escape plan
Five years ago, Annabelle, a Guyanese immigrant, mother and grandmother, opened a Caribbean restaurant in a mostly abandoned section of Far Rockaway. Though the area was poor and few restaurants had ever had any success, she believed that the Arverne projects would lift the entire peninsula. She envisioned a neighborhood café, a finer dining alternative to the Chinese take-out nearby. Annabelle (who didn't want her last name mentioned) set the tables with cloth napkins and silverware and hoped someday to expand into the vacant storefront next door, which she would convert into a live performance space.
At first it appeared her gamble would pay off. Before she knew it, the neighborhood was transforming: in place of the empty lots and dilapidated homes, speculative developers built condos and apartments. Yet her customers never came, because almost all of the new homes never sold. Today they are not occupied by homeowners, but by subsidized tenants with limited disposable income to spend at the café.
Large numbers of real estate speculators had come to the Rockaways for reasons similar to Annabelle’s. Land was cheap, the future seemed bright, and any business risk appeared to have a big upside. Inspired by HPD’s work in Arverne and its promise for a wealthier community, they bought small pieces of land wherever they could.
Walters of HPD thinks Rockaway offered a special allure—even more so than other areas near HPD efforts, such as in East New York, Brooklyn or Melrose in the Bronx. He suggests that the Rockaways’ proximity to the ocean and its frontier quality made it especially appealing for small and mid-size housing developers. One such company active in the Rockaways is United Homes, the controversial Jamaica, Queens-based developer which currently faces charges of racial discrimination and predatory lending in a series of pending lawsuits pertaining to issues elsewhere in the city. “I think the attitude is that because the city is doing a project out there, they can do a project and snatch up land on the cheap. But it’s fair to say that it’s come back to bite a lot of these folks,” Walters said.
Rockaway was also vulnerable to unwise development because of outdated zoning. The existing zoning framework was adopted in 1961 and suited to very different times. According to Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, it was geared toward a different economy and aesthetic; thus it created large manufacturing zones and more of a “tower in the park” layout. Before the development boom of the 1990s, many areas that were zoned for large-scale industry and tall buildings were abandoned. As the city’s economy revived, developers saw an opportunity in tearing down existing structures and building big.
“The zoning was completely general and it allowed all kinds of crap to be built,” said Paul Graziano, a land use consultant hired by local Councilmembers Joseph Addabbo, Jr. and James Sanders, Jr. to help the community board and civic groups develop a rezoning plan.
The Rockaway neighborhoods most affected by development that was out of scale relative to the surrounding neighborhood had been comprised of mostly single-family, two-story homes. But the 1961 zoning regulations allowed developers to insert much larger buildings – thus, the neighborhood now has a disjointed and unplanned feel. On a block in Far Rockaway that was once lined with one-story bungalows with small front yards (a handful of which still remain, though most are run-down and boarded up), the 1961 zoning had no height or setback – meaning distance from the sidewalk – requirements. Wedged between one-story bungalows, developers built four-story buildings with no setback; another company is erecting a 14-story building on the same street that blocks views of the ocean.