A Queens Coastal Community, Vulnerable to Climate Change, Fights a Plan for ‘High Rise Rentals’
The city housing agency is looking to rezone sections of The Rockaways for its Resilient Edgemere Community Plan. But locals decry the prospect of bigger buildings, and renters.
A city proposal to rezone swaths of the Rockaways vulnerable to flooding related to climate change is moving forward in the face of fierce neighborhood opposition over rental apartments that could be built there.
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is seeking to revive coastal and inland sections of Edgemere, Queens, a majority Black neighborhood on the peninsula still recovering from the damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and earlier abandonment.
The rezoning, which is set for review by the City Planning Commission on Wednesday, is the latest step in the sweeping Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, formulated under the de Blasio administration.
Released in 2017 after two years of groundwork, it aims to transform vacant lots “into affordable housing, retail and amenities, and open spaces, while mitigating flood risk and growing the coastal ecology,” as described on the HPD website.
In a pre-hearing session on Monday, members of the commission got an overview of the rezoning by the Department of City Planning’s Hallah Saleh, who noted the “significant flood risk and coastal hazards” facing the Edgemere community.
“High-tide projections for the 2050s show the area will experience twice daily flooding in the next 30 years,” Saleh said during the virtual meeting.
To prevent flooding, the multi-agency plan calls for fortifying the Jamaica Bay shoreline with a 30-inch-high berm, protecting the coast from rising sea levels.
The proposed rezoning, stretching from Beach 35th to Beach 50th Street, would downsize some blocks while promoting relatively large-scale development on others.
The residential area currently consists of occupied and abandoned homes. Some vacant lots are city-owned and fenced off, with overgrown weeds and signs declaring “WARNING NO TRESPASSING.”
In most of the area north of Beach Channel Drive, development would be limited to one- and two-family homes. To the south, between Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Edgemere Avenue, the proposed zoning would allow for new apartment buildings in the area of six to eight stories — amounting to as many as 1,222 units, HPD says, in addition to stores and community facilities.
That strip of apartment buildings would be out of place, some locals object — expanding on a partially realized urban renewal plan from 25 years ago that strictly allowed for one- and two-family houses. City homeownership programs require their owners to live in the houses long term.
“We don’t want any upzoning,” said Sonia Moise, a local homeowner, founder of the Edgemere Community Civic Association and member of Queens Community Board 14, which represents neighborhoods along the narrow peninsula. “We just want 100% home ownership and resiliency and flood mitigation and all that other great stuff.”
Moise is not alone in harboring concerns. In early February, CB 14 voted unanimously against HPD’s rezoning applications, in an advisory recommendation.
“There’s no way that I could ever support changing affordable home ownership to high rise rentals in a project that’s been going on for years and years and years,” Dolores Orr, the board’s chair, told HPD officials during the virtual meeting on Feb. 8.
Board members said the upzoning would increase residential density in a small community not fit for a major influx of New Yorkers.
Jonathan Gaska, the board’s district manager, told THE CITY that more than 10,000 units of affordable housing are already coming to Edgemere and Arverne, a neighborhood to the west, via ongoing projects.
He said those units are expected to significantly raise the peninsula’s population over the coming years.
Gaska said even more residents would add to the area’s traffic woes, which become especially severe during the summer when throngs visit Rockaway Beach.
“The roads can’t handle the traffic now,” he said, noting only two narrow roads lead to the Rockaways. “We’re a transportation desert. So traffic will be just horrible.”
Redevelopment proposals for the midsection of the Rockaways go back decades, most recently with 1997’s Edgemere Urban Renewal Plan.
The plan called for up to 100,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 800 housing units, “planned in primarily two-story, two-family houses, reflecting the character of the existing neighborhood,” according to HPD’s proposal.
HPD itself owned vacant lots scattered around the neighborhood where homes had been abandoned and demolished. From 1997 to 2008, a total of 307 one- and two-family homes were constructed, according to the latest Resilient Edgemere plan. But when the housing market crashed in fall 2008, Edgemere’s development came to a standstill.
In April 2008, HPD estimated the Edgemere renewal project would be completed by October 2012. Instead, that was the month Superstorm Sandy clobbered the peninsula. The storm devastated Edgemere as the Atlantic Ocean flowed into Jamaica Bay, submerging homes.
Moise’s two-story house was among them.
“The water came up to four feet,” said Moise, 48.
A 44-year resident of the Rockaways, she said when she bought her house in Edgemere in 2006, HPD promised her and other homeowners that the plan was to build one- and two-family homes, a supermarket and other amenities.
HPD still owns numerous vacant lots. And Moise complains that she has seen no signs of flood-prevention measures, noting that her home is still prone to flooding.
“We have been crying out to the city for years about flood mitigation,” she said.
“They should have worked on it years ago,” she continued. “And still to this day, we’re still suffering. Our flood insurance is sky high. Our homeowners insurance is sky high. And it seems like no one cares, which is a shame.”
And she said despite community members’ call for affordable homeownership opportunities in the area, HPD has opted to clear the way for apartment buildings.
“Our voices have not been heard, no matter how much we scream,” she said.
Other Rockaway residents share that frustration.
“We must have home ownership in our community. And that is the only way that we can ensure that we can stay there. “ said Lisa George, a longtime resident of Arverne who serves as the first vice president of the Heart of Rockaway Civic. “We want to be vested in our community.”
George said she currently rents an apartment, but hopes to be a homeowner. “I would like to be able to buy into something, whether it’s a condo or house,” she said.
On March 17, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards issued an advisory recommendation on the project approving the rezoning with conditions, completing the second phase of the land-use review process.
Richards’ conditions included HPD taking into consideration the Community Board’s request for homeownership opportunities in the rezoning areas and committing to a community benefit agreement with future developers.
Richards also requested that as part of the Resilient Edgemere plan, HPD work toward administering the Edgemere Community Land Trust. The new land trust program aims “to work with local organizations to develop a model for community ownership to facilitate long-term affordability and resilient land stewardship,” according to a solicitation for potential partners last year.
Additionally, the borough president asked HPD to collaborate with the School Construction Authority and the Department of Education to ensure a new school is built in the area, echoing the concerns he raised at the borough’s virtual hearing on land use on Feb. 24.
“I see certain neighborhoods have seven or eight schools getting built, and Rockaways has not been on course to have one yet with all of this development coming up,” Richards told HPD officials last month. “So I just want you to know this is a sticking point for me.”
If the commission approves the application, the City Council would vote on it. Councilmember Selvena N. Brooks-Powers, who represents Edgemere and other parts of southeast Queens, did not initially respond to THE CITY’s request for comment.
On Tuesday, after this article was published, Brooks-Powers expressed concern about the plan’s impact on residents, saying she has been “exploring all alternatives.”
“While I support the city’s efforts to fortify our shoreline and protect coastal communities from climate change, I am concerned that the city is not considering how upzoning will affect our neighborhood density, transportation, and utility infrastructure,” Brooks-Powers said in a statement.
She added that she is monitoring the land-use progress and working with locals to “ensure that their perspectives are prioritized in this and all rezonings.”
If the Council approves the rezoning, Mayor Eric Adams would have a chance to approve or veto it.