The Rockaways continue to prosper with $300 million revitalization project establishing a resilient community

Photo by Mike Shain

Nearly seven years after Hurricane Sandy ripped through Rockaway Beach, business is booming with an influx of visitors to the peninsula that has experienced rapid commercial development establishing a vibrant resilient community.

Nick Master, program coordinator at the Downtown Far Rockaway Housing and Commercial Development Corporation (RDRC), is a witness to the revival in the post-sandy era, after the devastating impact in October 2012.

“I remember when Sandy occurred the boardwalk was about half a mile away,” said Master. “I said ‘hey, I recognize this thing’…it was the boardwalk! To think that kind of force destroyed the boardwalk and moved it away…ultimately with the restoration of all of this it’s a real win. We’ve had a million visitors already, every year it’s exceeded higher and higher.”

In May 2017, the final section of the $341 million 5 ½-mile length concrete boardwalk was completed at Beach 32nd Street for beachgoers and visitors. Built to be resilient, the boardwalk serves as a barrier wall to protect the communities of the Rockaways.

A part of the beach that was closed off to the public last year due to erosion was replenished by sand dredged from the East Rockaway Inlet. The 11-block stretch from Beach 92nd to Beach 103rd Streets was reopened to the public in time for the summer season, after the Army Corps of Engineers and New York City reached a joint agreement. The project was paid for with $7 million in federal funding included in the Army Corps’ budget.

Additionally, the launch of the permanent New York City Ferry — coinciding with the completion of the boardwalk — has helped to alleviate transit inequities for Rockaway commuters with service routes between Beach 108th Street, the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and Wall St. Pier 11 linking the Rockaways to the city for $2.75 per ride.

“I know neighbors and family members that are thrilled about it,” said Master. “I used the ferry two months ago, and what a great trip it is. I can also see how this can be a problem in the sense of volume — a lot of Rockaway residents need to get home and there are tourists. How do you separate commuters from visitors? It’s hard to do that.”

City Councilman Donovan Richards, a lifelong resident of Southeast Queens and the Rockaways representing District 31, said they’re working towards pushing the city to create a second stop in the Rockaways for the eastern portion of the peninsula and a distribution of more boats.

“By having a second stop on the peninsula you’ll continue to see the transit equity gap that we face in the outer boroughs, but especially for low-income neighborhoods addressed through ferry service as well with access to the waterways,” said Richards.

In response to commuters’ 90-minute wait during Memorial Day weekend, Richards said, “We don’t want to lose commerce or tourism. We want people to experience Rockaway Beach. We don’t want the city to put barriers in the way and steer people from exploring the peninsula because of a 90-minute wait. We’ve had a great partnership with Horn Blower and they tried to create a strong partnership with local community stakeholders and local elected officials – their success is our success.”

Overall, Richards said, the ferry has helped boost the local economy, slash Rockaway residents’ commuting time in half, and tackling the transit inequities and accessibility connecting people to parts of the city.

Additionally, cashless tolling at the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge and the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge has brought more visitors to the Rockaways.

Today, the $300 million Downtown Rockaway Revitalization project has transformed the district with affordable housing developments, a new public library, new businesses and storm resiliency infrastructure, said Richards.

“This rezoning was tethered around ensuring that the infrastructure of the community was improved,” said Richards. “Where we saw streets with ponding and unsafe pedestrian access and walkways, you now will see new infrastructure come in — new streets, sidewalks, and a new Wi-Fi mesh network that will enable residents to connect to the Internet in the event of a storm.”

According to Richards, who is the former chair of the Environmental Protection Committee and Zoning Committee of the Council, it was important to build a sustainable and renewable community.

“We pushed developers to make sure there are solar panels on the roofs, green roofs, intervenes and generators, because we know with a projected storm map, parts of the rockaways will be impacted by a storm surge and climate change,” said Richards. “Everything we’re building in my district requires the buildings to be elevated at a level in case there is a storm and ensuring residents living in these locations are not impacted.”

The rezoning will allow for the creation of 100,000 square feet of commercial developments such as restaurants, gyms, a new supermarket and community uses tied in, Richards said.

“A livable, walkable, and a vibrant place where tourists can come as well, we want people to come and eat,” said Richards.

The City Councilman hopes to create an amusement park along the beach, such as Rockaway Playland, where locals and visitors used to shop and dine in the 1970s and 1980s. He also wants to promote the bird sanctuary that includes 200 species of birds that are in the Rockaways, unknown to people.

Richards also has plans to create a community land trust model, a form of affordable home ownership where the community controls land with stakeholders and maintains affordability, economic diversity, and local access to essential services.

“We’re already moving towards the future. Everything we’re putting in place now through the rezoning are happening now. We’re literally creating the framework of what the future Rockaways will look like as we speak,” said Richards.

Calling it a game-changer, Master said they look forward to continuing to create a “family-friendly” atmosphere for locals and visitors.

“Probably the most rewarding type of aspect of this work is that you’re seeing meaningful and measurable outcomes occur,” said Master. “All of this has to be thought out before you can put the shovel in the ground and that’s what we’ve been doing. “In this downtown being revitalized supports the beach that’s revitalized. Nothing beats a clean beach where you can go sit on it and relax.”