After years of protracted conversations about development in downtown Jamaica, many of the players who have been pushing for more robust investment in the neighborhood say change is in the air.
“You just plug along, project by project,” City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), said. “And five years later, it’s a whole new neighborhood.”
About 86,000 pedestrians travel through downtown Jamaica on any given day, while more than 200,000 pass through via the Long Island Railroad and 49,000 people use the subways each day. There are 49 different bus lines.
The area connects New York transit riders to John F. Kennedy International Airport via the AirTrain, which 16,000 people use every day. Despite this traffic, business leaders, community members and elected officials contend the downtown often loses revenue to other neighborhoods for a variety of reasons, including a lack of amenities and services.
“We’ve been seen as an outer ring or an afterthought, and it’s nice to see that the city has done a few things to start innovation in this space and build out,” Rhonda Binda, the executive director of the Jamaica Center Business Improvement District, said. “We already have the foundation. We already have the bones.”
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has been a proponent of downtown Jamaica development during her tenure. Last year she formed the Jamaica NOW Action Plan. The plan proposes 26 actions to be completed in the next five years that will spur Jamaica development. One proposed action is to install free Wi-Fi service along the Jamaica corridor, which Katz said would be available this summer.
“I think that Jamaica has the infrastructure for expansion and investment,” she said. “Jamaica, Queens, is a hub of culture and tourism and job creation. We want to make sure it was given the tools to provide for the future.”
Proposed residential developments have been announced at an accelerated rate in recent years. The Crossing at Jamaica Station, to be located at the intersection of Archer Avenue and Sutphin Boulevard, across the street from the AirTrain/LIRR station, will contain 580 proposed residential units and three floors of retail space. BRP Companies filed a permit with the city in June 2015 to develop the property. U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) said the The Crossing was a vital part to area development.
“It sends the message that Jamaica is building and the opportunities are there,” he said. “I’ve always said we were a transportation hub, but you can’t be a transportation hub without the retail and the development.”
There is also increased hotel development in the area. Able Management, a New Jersey-based developer, intends to build a 26-story Hilton Garden Inn at the corner of Sutphin Boulevard and 94th Avenue, with completion of construction scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2017. A Flushing developer also plans to put up a two Marriott Hotels at the corner of Archer Avenue and 149th Street. The Hilton would contain 210 rooms. while the two Marriotts would contain more than 330 rooms.
A residential/retail development originally intended for 168th Street and 90th Avenue was delayed earlier this year. Greater Jamaica Development Corp., an organization created to encourage public and private investment in the neighborhood, owned the land and partnered with Blumenfeld Development Group in 2013 to construct a 160,000-square-foot retail store with a parking garage.
In February, Hope Knight, Greater Jamaica Development Corp’s president, announced it was issuing a general request for proposals for the location and that Blumenfeld was no longer the property’s developer. Knight said a number of newly announced residential and retail developments, including a new Burlington Coat Factory at Jamaica Avenue and 160th Street, changed the perspective on what was needed at the 168th Street location.
“I still believe we would like to have some retail anchor on that corridor on 168th Street,” she said. “But the urgency is not the same given that other retailers have come.”
Meeks said he liked the idea of having a large anchor tenant occupy the space, but also said there was also an opportunity for mid-size box retail in downtown Jamaica, saying that smaller stores might be more appropriate along Jamaica Avenue.
Binda likened the downtown area to a “sleeping giant” of massive untapped potential, despite a dearth of amenities that was being addressed with increased public and private investment. Binda said it would be vital to improve the infrastructure of Jamaica Avenue and ensure that Jamaica’s transportation options benefit residents living and working within the surrounding area, in addition to commuters from Long Island or JFK Airport.
“We are four separate transportation hubs that don’t necessarily serve the downtown community to get around the downtown community as we’re expanding,” she said, referring to the corner of 179th Street and Hillside Avenue, the bus station on Merrick Boulevard, the Jamaica Center subway and bus station, and the LIRR station with additional taxis, buses and subways. “We need those amenities from the city that are finally coming here and, in some cases, coming here first.”
Katz said the infrastructure inherent to the community made the renewed focus on Jamaica particularly primed for success.
“It all fits,” she said. “It’s the right time, the right plan and the right place.”
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona