By Rachel Vick
The streets of Edgemere were almost quiet on a Monday afternoon in July. Aside from a few cars and buses driving by or people walking from one place to another, there was little activity. Delis and fast food restaurants line the sidewalks. There are no supermarkets.
The process of building a large, multi-functional space complete with retail and affordable housing units on the former site of Peninsula Hospital began in January with proposals and community meetings. Since then, the process has moved forward and been a source of hope for some and a point of contention for others in the neighborhood.
The Edgemere Commons website describes the development as “transformative.” Regardless of one’s perspective on the project, that description is irrefutable. The proposal for the 2.4 million-square-foot development involves breaking up a block to create a new street and would take over a dormant area, marked by an overgrown lot.
Just off the Beach 44th Street A train station sits a community that would benefit from development to improve living conditions and give the neighborhood a much-needed boost. But residents say that development has to serve the people who already call that piece of Far Rockaway home.
The city has acknowledged the need for retail growth and infrastructure improvement in its Resilient Edgemere Community Plan. A report from the city comptroller’s office cites Edgemere’s poverty rate at almost double that of the city average with a significantly lower rate of job growth.
The proposed development, spearheaded by the Arker Companies, would rise in an area that the USDA Food Access Research Atlas categorizes as a food desert and a low-income neighborhood, two demographics that often overlap.
A food desert is defined by the USDA as any area where a significant number of urban residents are one mile or more away from the nearest supermarket. In this small section of a neighborhood with the lowest life expectancy in Queens, the impacts of inadequate access to food and services are evident in the region’s high rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension.
Edgemere Commons has shed new light on the divide between residents of East and West Rockaway, who are largely separated by income. Edgemere’s median income is about a quarter of the median income in Belle Harbor, one of the more affluent neighborhoods in Queens. The proposed development has generated backlash among residents of the peninsula farther removed from the project, while many Edgemere residents defend the project, their neighborhood and their voice.
The plan is midway through the Universal Land Use Review Procedure. In June, Community Board 14, which skews whiter and wealthier than Edgemere, voted against the plan with conditions. At the meeting, 47 people spoke in favor of the project and 11 spoke against it.
CB 14 Chairperson Delores Orr said that the board voted against the project because it represented the whole peninsula — not just Edgemere.
“It’s such a large project that you can’t expect everyone to be on the same page in a matter of months,” Orr said, “[The board] outlined what we think would be best and now it’s up to the developers to make it work.”
She agrees that development is necessary and that more retail would benefit the area, but she said CB14 does not think the current plan is sustainable.
The board is mostly concerned with insufficient infrastructure, she said.
Local schools would operate well over capacity once the project is finished, she said. The board cited concerns about building up an area vulnerable to flooding that is still feeling the effects of Hurricane Sandy.
Daniel Moritz, principal at The Arker Companies, said that the firm changed the plan over time in response to the community’s needs. The addition of a 20,000-square-foot supermarket along Beach Channel Drive came after residents said it was necessary.
“We’ve spent time with all different stakeholders, listening to people and what they hope to see. The people in the neighborhood have a lot of value and plenty to add,” Moritz said. “We’ve really tried to incorporate their feedback in planning.”
The project currently awaits review by the City Planning Commission ahead of a full vote by the City Council. Despite the community board resistance and lengthy process, Arker said he thinks they could still break ground in 2020.
The council traditionally votes in lock step with the local councilmember on land use issues. Councilmember Donovan Richards represents the affected area and has not yet issued his final approval of the plan as it currently stands.
At a recent hearing on the vote, Richards said that “there’s a long way to go with negotiations over the next four to five months,” The Wave reported.
A spokesperson for Richards said Richards supports “economic development” at the site, but will continue shaping the plan after the CPC review to ensure that the project addresses community needs.
Milan Taylor, the founder and executive director of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, said that he and local residents, most of whom are people of color, support the project. Taylor said he thinks the CB14’s stated opposition masks more malignant issues.
“They say they’re worried about density, but what does density really mean? More black and brown folks coming into this community and they’re equating it with crime and all sorts of dog whistles,” Taylor said.
He said he is frustrated by CB14’s rejection of the proposal despite the overwhelming number of community members who spoke in favor of the plan. He pointed to the divide between the eastern and western neighborhoods on the peninsula and said CB14, which serves the Rockaways and Broad Channel, does not adequately represent Edgemere residents.
“The eastern end is comprised, I believe, of upwards of 75 percent folks of color and it's just super ironic that all the folks who spoke out against the project [at the Community Board meeting] were white and a good portion don’t even live on this part of the peninsula,” Taylor said. “There are some very strong racial undertones in this conversation.”
Many low-income residents are rent-burdened, meaning they spend a significant amount of income on housing with little left to save. Taylor stressed the importance of “upward mobility” and said affordable housing can enable people to save money and eventually buy a place.
“It’s important for young folks of color that their voices are being heard because they’re the future of the community,” he said. “When this is done in 15, 20 years, most of the people opposed to the project won’t be here.”