Jamaica Plan Gets Mixed Response

From the New York Times

August 25, 2007
Southeast Queens Is Split Over Makeover Proposal

When Gloria Black looks into Jamaica’s future, she sees a grand restoration: Department stores will move into spaces where discount jewelers sell removable gold teeth; vacant storefronts, their windows taped up with yellowing newspaper, will fill one by one. The prosperous downtown of the 1960s — the one that drew families from Harlem and Brooklyn and South Carolina — will return to southeast Queens.

Crystal Ervin sees something different. If Jamaica is reshaped by the city’s rezoning, she fears, the single-family home her parents bought in 1953 will be jammed up against a six-story building. Parking, already a headache, will become a nightmare. And the modest middle-class dream of her mother, who is now 85, will be taken away.

These were just two responses to Wednesday’s news that a 368-block rezoning plan had been approved by the City Council’s Land Use Committee, making final approval a near certainty. The plan would allow hotels and office towers in the center of Jamaica, add a corridor of six-story buildings to Hillside Avenue, and cap development in some residential areas. Though most residents are still hazy about how the plan would affect them, community activists have split over one central question: Can density bring good things to a neighborhood?

The question is particularly pointed around Jamaica’s shopping district, which was once the city’s fourth-largest retail area. That all changed in the 1970s and ’80s, when shoppers began to head out to malls on Long Island and Jamaica’s anchor stores vanished one by one, leaving discount stores and nail salons in their place. Surrounding the downtown area are sleepy, low-slung commercial strips and neighborhoods that treasure their quiet.

“This is almost like the beginning of suburbia,” said Gregory Comodore, 53, who owns Byrnes Hardware and Tool Rentals on Jamaica Avenue. Over the last 32 years, he said, his business has catered to Italian and German immigrants, then black and Hispanic families, then West Indian immigrants — but they all had this in common: they were homeowners.

He said he worries rezoning will bring “walls and walls of apartment houses.”

“What are we going to sell them?” Mr. Comodore said. “A couple light bulbs?”

But the same notion delighted Tommy Giannopoulos, who owns Michael’s Flower Shoppe on Hillside Avenue. He dismissed his neighbor’s concerns about parking congestion — “We live in New York City! There’s a parking problem everywhere” — and focused on the abandoned businesses across the street, where he said a strip mall had been shuttered for 10 years.

“It’s sad,” said Mr. Giannopoulos, 51, adding that in better days Donald J. Trump, who owned property in the area, was a regular customer. “There’s no CVS, no Rite Aid. As it stands right now, people have no reason to come to Hillside Avenue,” he said.

The rezoning — the largest such proposal to date under the Bloomberg administration — is part of a larger city strategy that would build up secondary business districts in all five boroughs. Jamaica is already a transit hub: Commuters flood into the Long Island Rail Road terminal on workdays, scattering to bus and subway lines, and another stream arrives on the AirTrain, which provides a link to Kennedy Airport. By allowing commercial development in areas now zoned for manufacturing, officials expect to bring 9,600 jobs and 5,200 residences to the area.

Local critics, especially those from the leafy neighborhoods north of Hillside Avenue, have protested that the area’s sewers, schools and parking spaces are already overloaded. Planners originally allowed for 12-story buildings along the Hillside corridor, but reduced the maximum height to seven stories in negotiations with the City Council. But even that influx could be “horrendous,” said Mark J. Lefkof, chairman of Community Board 8, which represents Briarwood and Jamaica Estates, among other neighborhoods.

“Queens is houses,” he said, adding that the plan was devised by “people who are Manhattanites, that don’t understand the makeup of the communities and the makeup of Queens as an outer borough. We do not have walls of buildings.”

The board voted unanimously against the rezoning in March, though Mr. Lefkof said he had no objection to the rezoning of areas south of Hillside.

Planners got a friendlier response from Community Board 12, which represents Jamaica, South Jamaica, Hollis and St. Albans. Ms. Black, the board’s chairwoman, said her constituents were willing to support the plan after being reassured that they would not be required to sell their property under eminent domain and that sections of one- and two-family homes would be preserved. The difference in responses, she said, has to do with “socioeconomic status.”

“Over here, we’re in a blighted area which needed to be overhauled and stimulated for the past 40 years,” she said. She said she hoped the plan would usher in “quality living, as I was exposed to when I came to this neighborhood in 1962. Most of us came from Brooklyn, from Harlem, from the South, for the express purpose of getting a little strip of land with some trees.”

The plan goes to the City Planning Department before a full Council vote on Sept 10. Councilman David I. Weprin of Hollis, who opposes the plan, said that at least one homeowner was approached by a developer within a day of the Land Use Committee vote. His office has arranged a rally tomorrow to draw attention to “the ruthless tactics of these greedy developers.” Councilmen Tony Avella of Bayside and James F. Gennaro of Fresh Meadows also oppose the plan because of changes to Hillside Avenue.

Still, to many of the neighborhood’s residents and business owners, the rezoning remains abstract and distant. Dr. Barry Eisenkraft, a veterinarian who practices on Hillside Avenue, said he tried to organize some of the neighboring businesspeople around the issue and received no response. Ms. Black sympathized; only about a third of the people in her neighborhood, she estimated, have focused their attention on rezoning.

“You get people who seemingly just can’t generate the interest,” she said, “until it smacks them in the eyes.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Posted Under: Jamaica, Planning, Queens, Upzoning

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