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Ambitious housing projects bring hope for revival of peninsula

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Arverne by the Sea, a city-supported, sprawling 2,300-home development being built in the center of the peninsula, has community members and elected officials alike eyeing it as a centerpiece in a broad effort to revitalize an area that has been largely neglected for the last 40 years. "If we do this right, we're talking about a holistic plan for a community where we can use these resources to build and develop, where we can start attacking if not solving some of these seemingly intractable problems that have plagued the community for years," said City Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton). The Playground of New YorkIn the early 1900s, the Rockaways were a collection of bustling coastal villages and considered a premier summer getaway for thousands of New Yorkers through the 1930s, earning the 11-mile long spit of land the nickname "The Playground of New York." However, the rise of inexpensive travel and the construction of the national highway system gave area residents more holiday options, transforming the Rockaways into a more residential community, and with the end of World War II came the construction of several low-income public housing projects. Thousands of families were shuffled to the housing projects, a product of city plans to rid Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn of crime- and drug-infested slums that dotted the region. These low-rent apartment complexes soon became hotbeds of crime, prompting Mayor John Lindsay to bulldoze large swaths of land in Arverne, Edgemere and Hammel as part of a sprawling urban-renewal plan to revitalize the area in the early 1970s. Money for Lindsay's plan soon ran dry, and for nearly 40 years the community of Arverne has languished in a sea of false starts and poor funding, leaving hundreds of acres of prime beach front property largely untouched. In the last five years, new development in the region - largely spurred by the massive Arverne By the Sea project - has restored optimism among residents and elected officials on the peninsula that the beachfront villages can once again regain the allure that made the Rockaways the apple of New York's eye years ago.A New BeginningSince the Mayor Michael Bloomberg broke ground on Arverne by the Sea in 2003, the developer, Benjamin-Beechwood LLC, has embarked on an aggressive construction plan to kick-start the $1.2 billion project. The project's first of six planned neighborhoods, a collection of 32 middle-income townhouses dubbed the Sands, was completed in early 2006 and sold out quickly. Jennifer Stern, a mother of two who grew up in Glendale, recently moved into a two- bedroom apartment with her husband in the project's pioneer community. "It's like a dream come true for me," Stern said. "I've always wanted to live by the beach and I really can't imagine a better time or a better situation to be in out here." Homes for two other neighborhoods, Ocean Breeze and Palmer's Landing, are nearing completion and selling quickly, according to Laura Sporny, a sales manager for the development. Similar to The Sands, Palmer's Landing is a collection of one- and two-bedroom rental units designed for middle-income families. Ocean Breeze, the development's sole affordable housing complex, will be comprised of three mid-level apartment buildings and 198 units currently selling to families with a household income of no more than $83,600. Both are expected to be completed and occupied by the end of 2007. Sporny said prospective buyers often get emotional when they come through her office."I talk to people who for all of their lives have been trying to get out of the Rockaways. Now, because of this development, all they want to do is buy a home here," Sporny said. Bloomberg also broke ground on a planned 30,000-square-foot YMCA in November, which he said will provide jobs and services to more than 10,000 people. The Y is scheduled to be completed in 2008. Benjamin-Beechwood said it expects the entire development to be finished in the next five to seven years.Causes for ConcernWith all the excitement swirling around the development, however, there is an equal amount of concern. Sanders said working with the developers to insure Arverne by the Sea is properly integrated into the community surrounding it is paramount to its success. He cautioned that without building the proper infrastructure to support such a complex in the community, the potential exists to create a large wealth gap that divides the peninsula rather than uniting it. "It, of course, could lead to a tale of two cities where one city is doing well and looking down on those mired in poverty and descending," he said. "It really does not have to be."Sanders said while he is encouraged by plans for a new school, slated for construction in 2009, and the construction of the Y, more needs to be done to guarantee that chronic problems for the community such as school overcrowding and crime will be addressed. "The poverty has been going on out here for generations. The poor schooling has been years in the making," he said.Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska said transportation and traffic are also concerns. He said just as the influx of families into the region could affect crime and schools, so too will it bring an increase in traffic and parking that the current plans may not be able to handle.Gaska and Sanders both agree that Arverne By the Sea is an unparalleled opportunity for the city, but said its implementation over the next several years will make or break its success."It's been said that the opportunity of a lifetime must be seized in the lifetime of the opportunity," Sanders said. "The choice is really ours and we are at the moment of decision." Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 162.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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