A visioning session Thursday night on the future of the state-owned Creedmoor Psychiatric Center drew about 90 community members to P.S./I.S. 208 in eastern Queens.

The school itself is situated on what had been part of the mental health care campus, just across the Cross Island Parkway from an inpatient tower that housed several thousand mental health patients in its heyday and continues to serve a few hundred patients today.

The session put on by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and Empire State Development (ESD) —  a state-controlled authority Gov. Kathy Hochul has tasked with exploring new uses for the Creedmoor property — was intended to engage the local community in plans for redeveloping 55 acres of the southern parts of the 125-acre campus, which has sat largely underutilized since the deinstitutionalization of mental health services a half century ago drastically reduced the population at the site.

The public engagement effort comes just after Hochul proposed a budget including her plan to build and operate 3,500 new transitional and supportive housing units throughout the state for people with mental health needs.

But because the state owns the land, once the community has offered its vision the governor will make the call on what happens to the site — and how that weighs her plans for a more robust mental health infrastructure against her plans for more development and more affordable housing.

“It is a facility being used for the treatment of folks with mental disabilities — and that’s fine,” said Michael O’Keeffe, president of Creedmoor Civic Association which represents residents near the site, ahead of the visioning session. “But we want to see a balance, I think, with other things as well.”

While the inpatient tower that sits north of Union Turnpike will remain untouched, the prospective redevelopment site south of the turnpike is already home to a few supportive and transitional housing residences licensed by the state Office of Mental Health (OMH). 

Empire State Development said it will be looking to revitalize the site in ways that are “compatible” with these existing services, according to a presentation during the visioning session by Doug McPherson, a project manager at ESD’s real estate planning team.

Speaking to concerns about what development on the site would mean for psychiatric services there, OMH spokesperson James Plastiras told THE CITY after the visioning session that “all of those existing programs, including the OMH-licensed programs on the South Campus, are outside the scope of ESD’s redevelopment effort,” adding that “the revitalization of the South Campus will bring many inherent benefits to the individuals who currently live, work and receive services on the campus.”

Richards told THE CITY in an interview hours before the visioning session, which he attended, that he is “cautiously optimistic” the site will create opportunities to address several ongoing needs within the city and the borough. He offered the example of a mixed-use community that helps address needs for mental health services, homeless shelter and affordable housing.

“This is a real opportunity to have these hard conversations that have been dealt with in silos for decades,” Richards said, adding that there is “much more political will” now than during past attempts to redevelop Creedmoor. 

‘Safe Haven’

Joann Johnson, a counselor who teaches cooking at a south-campus facility run by Transitional Services for New York — a non-profit contracted by the city and state to provide “ community-based services to individuals recovering from mental illness” —  said the redevelopment should take into consideration opportunities that help build life skills for people with mental health needs.

One way to “keep people out of the community,” Johnson added, is to actually give them a “safe haven in the community.”

Eastern Queens residents placed notes with redevelopment ideas over a map showing the area around the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. Credit: Haidee Chu/THE CITY

“That’s gonna save a lot of people on the streets from begging — and also crime. Because a lot of the people that do crime, most of them are just hungry and homeless — which leads to mental health,” Johnson told THE CITY during the visioning session. “It always starts somewhere. Most people just think, ‘aye, they’re bipolar, they’re schizophrenic,” but it always stems from somewhere.”

Some local officials, including State Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-Queens) and Councilmembers Robert Holden (D-Queens) and Vickie Paladino (R-Queens), are seeking a more traditional approach to treating mental illness at Creedmoor, with a recent push to restore hospital beds there.

“I believe that first and foremost there should be a complete restoration of all possible mental health beds and services at the site with some additional independent living facilities and housing for our seniors,” Comrie said in a statement.

While civic association leaders have long expressed concerns about panhandling and other “quality of life” issues near the Creedmoor site, some of them are also open to the idea of restoring  the mental health infrastructure that once defined the area — but with a more integrated approach this time.

Richard Hellenbrecht of the Bellerose Commonwealth Civic Association has lived in the area for 52 years, serving on community advisory boards that worked closely with supportive housing providers to manage relationships between the campus’ population and residents from the surrounding neighborhoods.

In an interview ahead of the visioning session, he stressed that “fairness and equity … must be taken into consideration” so that people with mental health needs can “get to a point where they could live on their own.” 

“There have been many, many problems,” he said. “It’s time to see that a compatible development is put there … I think that the deinstitutionalization just happened too quickly and too severely, and it’s had impacts for decades now — not only on communities, but on the individuals themselves.”

‘The Needs of Our Community’

At the same time, Hellenbrecht, like other civic leaders who spoke at the visioning session, also stressed that any redevelopment on the site should also preserve the suburban characteristics of the surrounding neighborhoods, which would effectively cap how much new housing could go up. 

While parts of the Creedmoor campus had already been sectioned off and redeveloped into community facilities like the Queens County Farm Museum and several public schools, other revitalization attempts in the past — including a 2008 proposal by the the Indian Cultural and Community Center to erect two nine-story apartment buildings — were met with vehement resistance from the community, which is comprised mostly of one- to two-family homes.

Robert Friedrich, president of the Glen Oaks Village Owners Inc, a civics organization representing co-op owners in an area directly adjacent to Creedmoor, stood up to take the presentation floor just as ESD facilitators began to direct attendees to interactive stations where they could list out what they envision for the Creedmoor site.

Addressing the room, Friedrich said he had already met with leaders from 14 other civic associations in the area ahead of the visioning session to clarify their priorities for the redevelopment efforts. These leaders, he said, would like to see no structures taller than four stories and the existing neo-Romanesque-style building exteriors preserved whenever possible. 

These efforts, he added, should also be accompanied by adequate parking and public transit, as well as environmental remediation of the entire south campus to deal with lead and asbestos in old buildings, and an abandoned power facility. 

“Whatever you end up deciding to do has to serve the needs of our community,” Friedrich said, saying he would oppose any plans involving prisons, juvenile centers, homeless shelters or big-box retail stores.

But in the end, all those decisions will be up to the state, which owns the campus and can bypass the city’s existing land use review process.

ESD spokesperson Emily Mijatovic said the state’s review process would still require the agency “to consult with [the] public and with the city on proposed redevelopment and allow oral and written comments.” 

“ESD has designed the outreach process to ensure that the community is an integral part of the planning for Creedmoor,” Mijatovic added. “Over the coming months, ESD will work with the community in the area over multiple sessions to help shape a Master Plan for Creedmoor.”

As longtime residents of the area continue to advocate for their needs and priorities, younger members of the community — including 28-year-old social worker Kristen Mulvena — are eager to have their voices heard.

“I don’t believe the co-ops or the co-op boards speak for everybody,” Mulvena said. “I don’t think that all the wonderful things that brought my parents here — I don’t think they need to be gate-kept from other people. I think we need to be welcoming more people into the benefits of this neighborhood — not less.”