Forty-five years ago, America’s downtown urban centers began a spiral of decay as jobs, shopping and housing moved out along new and planned highways to the suburbs. Among the urban centers that suffered this fate was Downtown Jamaica, Queens.
Until the 1960s, Downtown Jamaica was a thriving and major urban center of commerce, government and entertainment for the New York City region. With a history going back to the 1600’s and including one of nation’s first railroad hubs, Jamaica has long been a center of commerce, transportation and government. In the 20th Century major roads and mass transit lines made the Downtown area highly accessible and convenient. It was home to key government institutions, headquarters banks and insurance companies, a prominent afternoon newspaper, a major retail corridor on Jamaica Avenue, three department stores including the first Macy’s outside of Manhattan, numerous professional offices with practices serving Long Island and the first modern supermarket, King Kullen. The Downtown even featured an impressive Spanish Baroque movie palace called the Loew’s Valencia Theater, drawing thousands of moviegoers each year. By the end of World War II, Downtown Jamaica was an unrivaled hub of retail, finance, with commercial and professional activity in New York City and its environs. Since the 1920’s southeast Queens has been one of the country’s largest middle-class African-American enclaves – with a proud record of serving as home to many of the county’s most important figures in jazz. It continues to have the city’s highest percentage of homeowners.
However, by the 1960s, Downtown Jamaica began experiencing decline. Regional shopping malls encircled it, siphoning off retail activity. All three of Downtown Jamaica’s department stores, major banks, and many professional offices, industries and their related jobs and economic activity moved out. The Downtown suffered from the loss of its largest employer, Ideal Toys, several movie theaters and the headquarters of its regional newspaper, The Long Island Press. Racial and economic segregation exacerbated the public’s uncertainties about the Downtown. By the 1980s, neglect and poverty characterized what was once a vital regional center.
In 1967, a group of visionary business and community leaders — motivated by Regional Plan Association’s assessment of Jamaica’s needs and potentials — came together to form the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC), with significant support from the Lindsay administration, which made Jamaica a focus of its economic development efforts, in order to combat the forces of decline. Among New York City’s first community development corporations, GJDC and its partners have worked to revitalize Downtown Jamaica as a vibrant and sustainable center of commerce, entrepreneurship and culture in the New York City region – a dynamic community in which people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to work and raise their families.
In partnership with City and State government, GJDC — a not-for-profit local development organization — prepared, with community participation and civic leadership, plans to revitalize Downtown Jamaica. It advocated building on the Downtown’s transportation infrastructure assets to attract new investments, jobs, housing, cultural and civic activity and economic development. This strategy included:
Creation and advocacy of a thoughtful, cohesive plan for sustainable development, supported by a consensus of key stakeholders and partners;
- Creation of a favorable economic environment that attracts and supports private investments to Downtown, the key to sustainable job creation and entrepreneurship;
- Accommodating public investments in regional facilities and infrastructure to support economic activity and growth in the Downtown.
Today, GJDC provides leadership in promoting and managing growth, working to attract new businesses and developers to invest in the Downtown’s emerging opportunities. It provides businesses and property owners the assistance and tools needed to succeed, and it advocates for public policy and support needed to realize the full potential of Downtown Jamaica as a regional center for economic and entrepreneurial activity. In particular, Greater Jamaica Development Corporation’s Business Services Group (BSG) provides a range of services to small businesses in southeast Queens; with a focus on industrial firms. The BSG manages a small business loan program; providing from $30,000 to $30,000 in capital to nearly bankable area firms. The goal is to retain and attract well-paying manufacturing jobs.
Now on the cusp of substantial growth, the Downtown also faces daunting challenges from the ongoing economic downturn, which has dampened the pace of development and caused high rates of local home foreclosures. Private investment and mixed-use projects have been stalled; including hotels, new retail and commercial space, a park, several hundred units of housing and public parking.
The recentclosing of Mary Immaculate Hospital cost Jamaica 1,200 jobs and has had a major impact on the provision of essential health services throughout Southeast Queens. GJDC is especially concerned about the uncertain future of this vacated campus, which has tremendous potential for productive re-use. The campus was sold at auction in a bankruptcy proceeding. GJDC is monitoring proposed re-uses to prevent the campus from uses that might have negative effects on Jamaica. GJDC’s goal is to see that that property is put to its highest and best use. Similar problems face the former Hostess industrial bakery in the Downtown, which closed recently and now sits idle.
Despite these obstacles, GJDC is encouraged that the Downtown has continued to move forward on several fronts, fueling its optimism about Jamaica’s future. Significant strides have been made during the last five years, notwithstanding considerable economic headwinds. Promising infrastructure improvements and pre-development work are in place, which will position available sites recently re-zoned for mixed-use projects for development as market conditions improve. In addition, GJDC efforts were instrumental in attracting several new retailers to the Downtown, including Verizon Wireless, Applebee’s and Gap Generation and Associated Supermarket. Several sites for housing are being cleared.
While recent years have seen the closing of the two major facilities in Jamaica and the loss of several hundred jobs, the area also seen the steady realization of the Downtown’s transformation into a vibrant, multi-cultural business and residential community – highlighted by the recent openings of the substantial Moda mixed-use development, Applebee’s restaurant, new offices on Sutphin Boulevard and 161st Street, retail expansions on Jamaica Avenue, and the opening of the City’s magnificent Jamaica Performing Arts Center. Several small hotels have been built and others are planned. A new taxi dispatch system at Jamaica Station/AirTrain has improved chaotic conditions there.
GJDC recognizes that successful downtowns are increasingly those that engage in high value-added, knowledge-rich activities. In the 21st century, successful world cities and their communities will be those that provide efficient access to other centers of information and capital.
The businesses and institutions that will be the future of Downtown Jamaica and Southeast Queens are those that draw on this region’s strengths.
- The key to Jamaica’s future development is clearly the AirTrain rail connection to JFK International Airport. Aviation is essential to the continued health of Queens, where it is the largest private sector employer, as well as to the entire New York City metropolitan area. The nearby international airport serves as a gateway to the world; especially for the vital financial services industry. Ensuring that Jamaica puts its best face forward to greet the hundreds of thousands of travelers who pass through the Downtown and will want to experience what it has to offer – its shops, restaurants and the other retail businesses that are at the core of Jamaica’s economic well-being — is high on GJDC’s agenda.
- York College continues to grow, with improved admissions criteria, increasing enrollment, new faculty, and new academic programs. A planned Student Support and Conference Center and a new CUNY School of Pharmacy are an essential part of the College’s new Master Plan, which is now being implemented. Its partnerships with the on-campus U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CUNY Aviation Institute at York College, and the aviation industry, remain central to its mission.
- With York College and St. John’s University, the U.S. FDA, Queens Borough Public Library, Queens Hospital Center, and Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, Jamaica is well-positioned to benefit from and contribute to the economic changes now taking place.
Working with government, community, corporate and foundation partners –New York City and New York State, the Queens Borough President, major airlines and many others – GJDC is actively persisting in placing Jamaica on the right side of these new and important developments. Its commitment remains steadfast: to expand economic opportunity and improve quality of life for the ethnically and economically diverse residents of Jamaica and for the region.
The obstacles of recent years– home foreclosures, small businesses’ struggling to find credit and customers, high job losses – have tested GJDC’s mission and its mettle. Most recently, several key private projects have stalled, due principally to a lack of debt capital available for project construction. But even with these challenges, recent years have demonstrated the continued strengths of the Downtown. Retail vacancies are few, and rents on Jamaica Avenue are as high as $150 per square foot. Indeed, Jamaica attracts shoppers from around the region and the Caribbean interested in sophisticated urban fashion. One of the county’s most successful architectural practices has moved its offices to an attractively adaptively re-used storefront office space. Several high quality primary care health facilities have relocated to Jamaica. 350 units of newly built high quality mixed-income housing are fully occupied. Despite misperceptions, Downtown Jamaica is safe, clean, attractive and vibrant.
By addressing these challenges, with the active involvement of its public and private partners, GJDC’s has advanced ambitious development plans, overcoming development obstacles and misperceptions held by decision-makers of this Downtown’s exceptional potentials.