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Meeks unveils new plans for downtown Jamaica

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) helped unveil Monday a proposal to transform Jamaica Center into a major business hub as the AirTrain terminal connects the center of southeast Queens with the rest of the world.

AirTrain, a $1.9 billion light rail system, will provide an eight-minute ride from downtown Jamaica to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“This plan takes something that had been a dream ... into the first phase of making it a reality,” Meeks said of the proposal.

The non-profit Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, headed by Carlisle Towery, commissioned a two-year study called the “Vision for Jamaica Center,” which includes a traffic plan, open space for parks and new businesses around Jamaica Station, where the AirTrain terminal is now under construction.

“Our job is to make Jamaica a destination place,” Towery said, “with favorable effects to the local population.”

Jamaica’s Long Island Rail Road station at Sutphin Boulevard between 94th and Archer avenues already acts as a transfer point for thousands of passengers traveling to Manhattan and Long Island. The AirTrain terminal will be built over the LIRR station, which is being fully renovated.

The $589,000 design report was funded largely by the state Department of Transportation and by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Project highlights included a 200- to 250-bed hotel directly over the AirTrain terminal, a direct exit off the Van Wyck Expressway into Jamaica Center using an extension of Atlantic Avenue, and up to three large parking garages.

An arcade is proposed for the unused area under the viaduct on the east side of Sutphin Boulevard. In the plan, the boulevard would have an oval park in its median featuring a large sculpture of an airplane, an allusion to the AirTrain’s airport connection.

The design is only a framework and many steps remain before Jamaica center is really transformed.

Towery pointed out that the area is not zoned for such development, and while the city Department of Planning has been surveying the area for potential changes, most of the work remains undone.

The Greater Jamaica Development Corporation hopes the hotel, office buildings and mall-type space for other businesses will be built by 2003, when the AirTrain terminal opens. But Towery said that time frame was not realistic without major support from a developer or the mayor.

Meanwhile, a 15-screen movie theater and retail complex is under construction at One Jamaica Center, about 10 blocks from the station, and is scheduled to open next spring.

The building will also house a Bally Total Fitness gym, an Old Navy store, GAP, GAP Kids, Walgreens, Golden Krust Pizzamax and Urban America Haircutters.

The AirTrain is the first of several proposed transportation proposals for the city, including the East Side Access Plan, which would make Manhattan’s Grand Central Station a stop on the LIRR. The East Side Access must precede any move to create a one-seat ride on the AirTrain to Manhattan because Grand Central would have to siphon off some of the passenger traffic that congested Penn Station could not handle, Towery said.

The proposal was prepared by Fox & Fowle Architects of Manhattan under the leadership of Mark Strauss, who presented a model of a transformed Jamaica Center at the project unveiling Monday at the Harvest Room of Jamaica Market.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 138.

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