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$800 million development gets started in Rockaways

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Nearly 40 years of stagnation ended at one of the most scrutinized urban renewal sites in city history last Thursday as elected officials and developers scooped symbolic shovels of dirt to mark the beginnings of a new 2,300-unit seaside residential community in the Rockaways.

Sunshine, a slight breeze and temperatures in the mid-70s gave the more than 200 people who gathered a block from the ocean for the ceremonial groundbreaking of Averne-by-the-Sea a taste of what is in store for home buyers.

The $800 million development will include 2,300 residential units, 250,000 square feet of retail space, a day care center, a community center with a swimming pool, an 800-seat charter school and a refurbished transit hub patterned after the one in Forest Hills Gardens. It will stretch from Beach 62nd Street to Beach 81st Street, bounded by the boardwalk to the south and the Rockaway freeway to the north.

Mayor John Lindsay ordered the demolition of dilapidated summer bungalows on the site in 1964, declaring it an urban renewal zone.

“This has been coming for a long time,” said Leslie Lerner, president of the Beechwood Organization, a Jericho, L.I. firm that is developing the 113-acre property along with Benjamin Development, of Garden City, L.I. “Benjamin-Beechwood will make it possible for 2,000 families to say that every day is a day at the beach.”

Stops and starts over the past four decades, including a 1997 plan to build a $1 billion Technodome complete with skating rinks and an indoor ski slope, fell prey to economic troubles or developers who pulled out.

“It took us about 40 years to get here,” said Jerilyn Perine, commissioner of the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which chose the developers and will oversee the lottery to decide who gets to live in the new oceanfront complex.

But city officials and developers insisted that this time things will be different because the project is of a manageable size, is community driven and the developers have sound financial plans. Many of project’s features were recommended by a community task force established by the city in 1998.

“Today is a positive step forward for the Rockaway Peninsula,” City Councilman Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), whose district includes about 2 percent of the project, told the crowd. “We’ve seen groundbreaking before, but this is the one that has the heart and momentum to become a reality.”

A slew of elected officials followed Addabbo, all praising the development and predicting it would serve as a catalyst for the revitalization of the Rockaways. They joined the developers in a ceremonial dig following the speeches.

Not everyone, however, was pleased about the launching of the first phase of the project, which will include the construction of 32 one- and two-family homes on 3 1/2 acres between Beach 73rd and Beach 74th streets, a block from the ocean.

Blowing furiously into whistles and chanting “What do we want? Union! When do we want it? Now!,” about 50 members of Local 45 of the Carpenter’s Union did all they could to disrupt the opening day’s festivities.

Upset that the project is going ahead with non-union labor, the workers demonstrated outside of the site against the backdrop of a giant rubber rat.

“We’re here for jobs for us, jobs for the community,” said John Early, business manager of the local, based in Queens Village. “They’re bringing people from out of state, from out of country, paying them $7 an hour. We’re talking about real jobs instead of stop gap jobs.”

Borough President Helen Marshall told Early she was “shocked” when she found out the project was non-union. Later in the day she said she had already spoken to the developer and to the union about working out a compromise.

“In a project this big I’m sure room can be made for the union,” she said.

Alvin Benjamin, president of Benjamin Development, said developing the project affordably and hiring workers from the community were more important than employing union workers. Carol Abrams, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development said the city does not favor firms that use union workers when selecting developers.

When the ceremony ended and the protesting died down, scores of prospective residents visited the Benjamin-Beechwood sales office to inquire about purchasing units, the first set of which could be ready as shortly as 150 days from now, said Benjamin. One-family homes will start at $275,000 and two-family homes at $350,000.

“Finally Rockaway is going to be developed,” said Chudi Onike, a Rockaway resident for two years who was looking at a two-family home in the new development. “It has been a neglected area of the city.”

Henry Jefferson moved to the Rockaways two years ago from Cambria Heights. He has looked at beachfront property in places like Cancun, Mexico and Virginia Beach, but said he had settled on Averne-by-the-Sea.

For what they’re asking, you can’t beat it,” he said. “Puff Daddy uses the same water in the Hamptons. It’s dirt cheap. If the developer does half of what he says he’s doing, you won’t be able to touch this place in three years.”

Not all of the curious were from the Rockaways. “It’s an investment property that we can get tans at” said Alice Barden, a Manhattan broker who was interested in buying a two-bedroom condominium for personal use.

Some residents said they were concerned the project did not include units set aside for low and middle-income families and that Rockaway residents would be priced out of the development.

Thirty percent of the units will be reserved for Community Board 14 residents, Abrams said. Work has already begun at nearby Ocean Pointe at Bayswater, a separate project designed for middle-income families, she said.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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