New hope for Rockaway

For 40 years the 300 acres on the Atlantic Ocean was a desolate eyesore. The razed ground, cordoned off by six-foot-high wire fences, was a favored dumping ground for slabs of concrete, car parts and piles of dirt from nearby construction sites.

But now lights go on in 134 three-story, pistachio and blue homes, with oceanfront views and neat lawns. A short walk away, the foundations of a giant supermarket and YMCA are being built.

After a decade of planning, Arverne by the Sea is becoming a reality. The $800 million development is changing the face of this remote peninsula on the southern tip of Queens that had fallen into decline since the middle of the last century.

“The development will bring in families, working people – people who will lobby for better services in the area,” said Jonathan Gaska, District Manager of Community Board 14, which encompasses Rockaway.

Arverne, which stretches along Rockaway’s southeastern shore for 20 blocks, was an empty lot for nearly four decades. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the land hosted row upon row of tiny beach bungalows – seaside havens for middle-class New Yorkers looking to escape the thick air of Manhattan in the summer.

However, as international travel became popular, the vacationing masses abandoned the Rockaway outposts. The area fell into disrepair in the early 1960s and was designated an urban renewal area by the end of that decade. By 1973 the entire locale was demolished.

“There were a number of attempts to develop the land,” said Gaska. “There were plans for a casino at some point. Then, in the 1980s there were plans for high-rise buildings.” But it was only in the late 1990s that the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) came up with a viable idea, he added.

In 2001, property developer Benjamin-Beechwood LLC, in association with HPD, proposed the Arverne by the Sea development. It included 4,100 units of housing, half of which would be for middle-income buyers, a YMCA and a large Stop & Shop. The city quickly approved the plan.

“It will revitalize the whole peninsula,” said the Arverne project manager, Nick Masem.

From his office in a container next to the construction site, Masem explained that the property sales in the development, which began in 2006, have defied the housing turndown seen elsewhere in the city. Only three of the 137 family houses are still unsold.

The popularity of the new homes should comes as no surprise – the area offers prime oceanfront real estate.

Yet developers left eastern Rockaway well alone for much of the last century. Arverne went into decline, owing largely to city government action in the 1950s and 1960s. They demolished vacant bungalows and in their place built gray pre-fabricated concrete high-rises in which to house the destitute and displaced poor. According to 2000 census records, nearly one-quarter of households on the east of the peninsula were below the poverty level.

Crime-rates soared as well; police department records show Rockaway’s easterly reaches had the highest increase in crime in the city in 2007. The area became attractive mainly to intrepid surfers and drifters with nowhere else to go. Now there will be more people like Adiel Campos, a 38-year-old police officer who moved to Arverne with his wife and three children last year.

“It’s just so nice and quiet here,” he enthused. Campos added that he looked forward to the YMCA opening up, even if it meant more traffic in the area. It will be the Y’s largest aquatics facility in the city, including two indoor swimming pools.

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg broke ground on the YMCA site in 2006, work only began on it two weeks ago. YMCA representative Kevin Shermach explained that there were “issues,” including permit delays and an unsuccessful request by the community to enlarge one pool.

The facility that is now going ahead is expected to serve 10,000 youths and 5,000 adults from the surrounding area each year.

“We currently don’t have an indoor pool or recreation center of that size and scope,” said Gaska. “It will be great for the kids and a place for people of all ages to enjoy.”

Construction on the $22.3 million Stop & Shop supermarket, which is being built on the 55,620 square feet between Beach 69th and Beach 73rd Streets, began last week, according to the developers.

Meanwhile, the new residents of the Arverne neighborhood eagerly await the local amenities. Abe Mossallam, an airline pilot who moved to Arverne with his pregnant wife and 18-month-old baby in July, admitted that living without a supermarket nearby had been irritating. “It’s getting annoying, especially now that my wife is seven months pregnant. She has to drive for 20 minutes to get the groceries.”

Mossallam stressed, however, that he was delighted with the move to Arverne from Brooklyn. “My neighbors are outstanding, the development is beautiful, and I can’t wait for the YMCA to open up so I can get back into a gym routine,” he said.

Arverne by the Sea sales manager Laura Sporney said that 40 percent of her business came from the referrals of residents. “To have that high a level of referrals, well it means you’re doing something right,” she said cheerfully.

According to developers, the YMCA and the Stop & Shop should be completed within 18 months. Masem predicts that once these amenities are in place, another 20 to 30 homes will automatically be sold in the development.

“Property values will go up and jobs will be created. Everybody wants to see this succeed,” he said.

And indeed expectations for the project are high. As Rohan Sinha, a banker who moved to Arverne with his wife in August, put it, “What could be better than waking up every morning with a view of the ocean?”

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