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Rezoning and new investments are bringing Far Rockaway into the spotlight

Rockaway, as an area, has had a troubled past. The peninsula spans approximately seven square miles, and is right between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Back in the 20th century, Rockaway was preferred as a hidden getaway by the sea, but new roads and train lines became available. These new easier ways of transportation made the beaches of Long Island more readily accessible than those on Rockaway. When the 50s arrived, Rockaway had left its elegant bungalows behind in order to become a public housing area, following a program of urban renovations pushed by Robert Moses. Ever since, the area has been left behind ever since, mostly because of how isolated it is in comparison of other areas of the city.

Nevertheless, thing appear to be looking up for this hidden peninsula. Many major players in the real estate business (firms like Related Companies, JDS Development Group and the Marcal Group) have been slowly but surely taking their first steps into the area, building and redeveloping. As far as public administration goes, a huge rezoning project has been recently approved, just last September: the city will invest $288 million in 23 blocks in Far Rockaway. This rezoning and investment will eventually lead to the creation of over 3,000 residential units, marking the beginning of the peninsula’s long-time-coming growth spurt.

Donovan Richards Jr., a member of the City Council, has expressed his surprise regarding the sudden surge of interest and subsequent investments. He said he has been working for his community for the last 15 years and this is the first time he sees a phenomenon like this affecting his area. For the founder of Marcal Group, Mark Caller, the decision of investing in Far Rockaway was a no-brainer: “the beaches are magnificent. If you go there and see the nightlife, it became a hipster haven”, he stated. Among several trendy hot-spots already installed on Far Rockaway, some worth mentioning are Sayra’s Wine Bar on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Beach 92nd Street, Epstein’s Beach bar two blocks east, and Rockaway Brewing Company at Failing Avenue and Beach 72nd Street. As far as the Marcal group goes, the real estate company is currently developing a mixed-use project addressed at 147 Beach 116th Street that will house 90 condominiums, span 24,000 square feet and cost $40 million.

Even though there is an undeniable sense of optimism surrounding the future of Far Rockaway, it is also impossible to deny the fact that the peninsula is located in a very vulnerable area, geographically speaking. Back in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy struck, this southern side of Queens was one of the most affected areas. The hurricane had devastating effects, and many people and buildings are still struggling to recover. Power wasn’t reconnected until many months had passed from when the storm first stroke, and the boardwalk -which was severely damaged- was only repaired a few months ago. In spite of these past experiences, developers highlight the resiliency that has always been a trademark of the city. Furthermore, decisions have been made since the storm hit to build in a different, smarter way.

A great need for independence

Another firm that is interested in the area is L+M Development Partners. Ron Moelis, the company’s head, stated this is a second chance the neighborhood is getting, after falling victim of negligent planning for half a century. He remarked the way Far Rockaway was developed during the 50s and 60s. For him, the poor management and development decisions continued up until less than ten years ago. His company has left its mark in the neighborhood already: L + M redeveloped a rental property known as Arverne View. Nevertheless, Moelis is still cautious: Far Rockaway is very isolated from the rest of the city, it is a very long drive from Manhattan, so the peninsula needs to be more self-sufficient.

This apparent lack of independence is what the rezoning will focus on remedying. Most of the city’s investment will be used to rebuild and redevelop the commercial and cultural hubs of the area. A new library branch will be established, as well as a $50,000 grant to the Queens Council for the Arts that will go toward supporting cultural endeavors in Far Rockaway.

If the area gets revamped by the city, more investors will lose the fear of taking a chance on the are too. Huge redevelopments like this are very encouraging for investors, according to Matthew Rooney,  CEO of MDG Design + Construction, whose firm signed a 99-year lease for a 24-building, 1,395-unit complex addressed at Beach 54th Street.

Another expert on the subject, Jaime Schultz, went as far as giving Hurricane Sandy some of the credit for the new life of the Peninsula. She is a managing director at the retail and office brokerage Lee & Associates NYC, and said that the people that survived the rage of Sandy were more convinced of staying in Far Rockaway. For her, the most lively period for the area started three years ago, and Schultz also highlighted the very high interest restaurant owners have on the area. Even though that in itself is very good news, Far Rockaway is still lacking in the commercial and retail department.

One of the central points of the rezoning is the Far Rockaway Shopping Center, located on Mott Avenue. This store is severely damaged but even after it gets updated, the area will still need more retail investors to occupy the high vacancy rate the area has on this subject. If developers find a way to bring not only more housing but also retail to the area, there is no doubt the neighborhood’s fate will turn around in no time.

[The Real Deal]