2002-04-13 / Columnists

On The Beach… With Beverly Baxter

The Wizards Of Arverne-By-The-Sea

Close your eyes and click your heels and say out loud, "There's no place like Arverne!" That's right! Because in just a few years what has long been considered a barren desolate wasteland will go from being a forgotten dismal area to a thriving and vibrant seascape with sprawling homes, tree-lined streets and landscaped parks. An area no longer gray, but an oceanfront community come alive in Technicolor!

When I first moved to Rockaway over twelve years ago, I remember the expression on my father's face as he rolled his eyes and quipped, "Nobody moves to Rockaway. People move away from Rockaway!" After all, I was from the tony North Shore of Long Island! How dare I make a reverse exodus and leave a place where people strive their whole lives to be! However, within minutes, a different expression came to his face. It was one of wistful reminiscence, of a time gone by of Huckleberry Finn summers spent on the beach in Rockaway. Through the years, I had heard much about this fabled place. And like many, I, too, have some roots here. In fact, you can travel to anywhere in the world and you will most likely meet, as I did on the Gold Coast of Australia, someone who has at one time fondly called Rockaway their home.

I will never forget the very first time I drove over the bridge to come here. Seeing the blue Atlantic Ocean in front of me and Jamaica Bay all around, I felt I'd made a magical discovery. However, as I drove along the
ocean, I couldn't help but wonder what happened here, and why it seemed that nobody could appreciate or see the potential in what I saw. Hundreds of acres of prime oceanfront land within 17 miles of the greatest city in the world and ten minutes to an international airport; yet it lay dormant as a wasteland; reduced to rubble, weeds, and an occasional pack of wild dogs. It defied all "real estate rules". If you were a Martian from outer space, you would think there had been a nuclear war here.

Well, nearly forty years have past since the city, under Mayor Lindsay, condemned and demolished the Arverne area in the name of "urban renewal."

The fiscal crisis of the 1970s coupled with the lack of a feasible development plan have caused the land to lay vacant and in wait....

What has remained is a pounding reminder of our greatest asset. It is the main "character" in our setting, as well as the key to a full and realized Rockaway renaissance: The ocean.

Hello, tomorrow! And enter: Arverne By-The-Sea, the $400 million dollar development plan to be built by the collaboration of two icons in the construction industry: Benjamin Development of Garden City Long Island and The Beechwood Organization of Jericho Long Island. As someone whose family has enjoyed a long relationship with both the Benjamin and Beechwood companies; and as someone who shares in the enthusiasm for how this project will breathe new life into a place I love and choose to live, I feel myself in a unique position as a columnist with "real estate" in this newspaper to be a kind of local "spokesperson" or liaison between the developers and the community.

The joint venture forming Benjamin-Beechwood LLC represents a formidable partnership with each bringing a combined 50 years of experience, a combined sales aggregate of nearly a billion dollars in their canon, and a myriad of talents that have distinguished them in the construction industry.

Theirs is a marriage between two well-suited partners who will compliment each other throughout the various phases of construction.

I met recently with Beechwood President Les Lerner and Benjamin Vice President Peter Florey at the Beechwood offices to discuss their match made in construction heaven. Our meeting took place in "The Arverne Room", a conference room (gallery) of renderings and photographs of what Arverne-By-The-Sea will look like once realized. As exciting as the project is, I could not help but be equally fascinated by what may have gone through Developer Les Lerner's mind when he first saw the site. Did he have a kind of "epiphany", a vision, as happenstance as Warren Beatty's in the movie, Bugsy?! Or was it simply a coming together of all the right elements and principals at the right time. If the definition of "luck" is when preparation meets opportunity, then the time could not be more right for Arverne-By-The-Sea. While we've had many false starts and our hopes for Arverne shattered in the past, we now have a viable plan. We have seen Oceanview Associates' proposal to build 7,500 market-rate apartments fail with the failing condo market in 1991, as well as the Disney-like Technodome, which also failed to secure funding.

According to Community Planning Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska, both proposals were more a matter of the city saying to us, "This is what's on the table" rather than, "Gee, what would benefit the Rockaway community? Let's confer with the various civic groups and include the community's input."

Unlike previous proposals, Arverne-By-The-Sea is a community-driven plan.

The tide has changed. The financial climate is now conducive to the creation of housing to fill the middle-class demand. "The market is hot as a pistol right now," states Les Lerner of The Beechwood Organization.

"There is such a need for the kind of housing we specialize in. Build two-family houses anywhere and it will work." Peter Florey, of Benjamin Development, explains why others who came before them may have failed. "It was perhaps the infeasibility of the project coupled with the market climate they got into." But in Real Estate everything is cyclical; and as Mark Twain once said, "Land will always be valuable...because God isn't making it anymore!"

What will Benjamin and Beechwood each uniquely bring to this elaborate joint venture? Founded in 1980 by Leslie Lerner and Michael Dubb, The Beechwood Organization is renowned in the industry for building successful two-family communities throughout N.Y.C. They have built over a thousand   homes of this type. In addition, they have and continue to build luxury homes, townhouses, and condos throughout Nassau and Suffolk. Among their award-winning communities are: Country Pointe at Alley Pond in Bellerose Queens; Baychester, Beechwood at Castle Hill, Pelham Bay, and Bruner in the Bronx; the up-scale Spruce Pond at North Hills; and the tony Country Pointe series at Manorville, Smithtown, Bayshore, Lake Grove, Miller Place, and Dix Hills. In total, they have built over forty-five communities and crafted more than 3200 homes. The developers have been celebrated in the industry for the Best New Design, Best Model Home, and Best Over-All Community awards.

Benjamin Development, founded by Alvin Benjamin, has been a major force in defining Long Island's landscape since the 1960's. They are noted for their diversification in building luxury apartments, golf-course communities, professional buildings, shopping centers, and extended care facilities. Among their stellar portfolio are the Grace Houses and Cunningham Heights in Queens, Throgs Neck and Cranford and Beaumont Avenues in the Bronx, Extended Care facilities in Glen Cove, Long Beach, and Hempstead; and The Knolls series at Fox Hill in Baiting Hollow, Melville, East Meadow, Oceanside, and Medford Landing. They are currently building in New Jersey, Pennsylvannia, and Florida.

According to David A. Salkind, whose company, Brown Builder's Supply, has been a material vendor to both developers for many years, "Now you will see something happen on a massive scale throughout Rockaway and Queens. Rockaway has needed an anchor. Benjamin and Beechwood are that anchor. Many of their jobs, like The Greens at Half Hollow, practically sell out before a single shovel is put in the ground."

What will Arverne-By-The-Sea look like? Unlike much of the new construction being built throughout Rockaway, Arverne-By-The-Sea will not be merely a series of city-block row houses; but rather an entire development community. The area will encompass 117 acres of the western portion of the urban renewal area from Beach 62 Street to Beach 81 Street, bounded by the boardwalk and the Rockaway freeway. With the main characters in the setting being the ocean and an entirely revamped Beach 67th Street Village Square transit plaza, inspired by Forest Hills Gardens, a retail corridor comprised of restaurants, cafes, quaint beach-themed shops, and perhaps a Starbucks and much needed bookstore will connect them. There will be apartments and condominiums above the retail space. The corridor, Ocean Way, takes its inspiration from several design influences: Mizner Park in Boca Raton and the Santa Monica Promenade in California. The developers will also restore the Derech Emunoh Synagogue, a city-owned historical Arverne landmark.

Although the community will not be gated, it will, with winding road patterns and walkable neighborhoods, have a feel of privacy.

Development will advance in four phases with each neighborhood defined by its own "personality", distinct architecture, and tone that expresses and draws upon the coastal setting. The sense of community will be accomplished by the blending of public spaces, landscaping, and parks, which will comprise over 10% of the site. In adhering to the fragility of the environment, there will be a natural beachfront preserve with dunes. Shorefront Parkway will become Beachfront Road and extend to 62nd Street as a one-lane road in each direction with a series of "round-abouts" and "cut-ins" to control the flow of traffic. In total, Arverne-By-The-Sea will be a compilation of 2,300 middle-income residential units, which will include one, and two-family homes, mid-rise buildings, nearly 250,000 square feet of commercial/retail space with some condominiums above. The developers will build a 30,000 square foot community recreation center with an indoor pool and health club, which will be open to the entire peninsula. They are currently speaking with various companies around the country who specialize in the operation of community centers.

Since there is already a tremendous shortage of schools in our area, I expressed the obvious concerns of the community on how the construction of 2300 homes and surge in school-aged children will impact upon an already over-crowded public school system. Understanding the need for new
schools, the developers have plans to build an 800-seat school, which may or may not be a charter, for students in Kindergarten through eighth grade along with a daycare center. The developers plan to meet with the local School Board, The New York City Board of Education, as well as with the Community Planning Board's Education Committee. "The details on just how and who will run it have yet to be worked out; but we will provide and build a school" states Les Lerner.

I say we embrace it! And gratefully! Do you dismiss this massive new construction and opportunity for much needed economic growth because we haven't enough schools? It rather makes more sense to welcome the growth and work toward meeting the demand. District Manager Jonathan Gaska agrees. "We're hoping that the moms and dads at City Hall will see the wisdom in this project and provide more seats by building more schools. We're also hoping that the parochial schools see the opportunity and do their part by expanding their already existing schools." In addition to his confirmation that reconstruction work on a Central Avenue school is slated to begin next month, Gaska also stated, "due to the increasing demand, a site has been selected for a new school in Edgemere. We are trying to get money in the budget in the next year or two."

Who will come to live at Arverne-By-The-Sea? With employers like J.F.K and LaGuardia Airports, the many hospitals, and schools, the developers hope to attract middle-class professionals from the enormous job base around the city. Two-family homes will start at $300,000 - $350,000. They will contain a three-bedroom owner's unit with a two-bedroom rental apartment on the second floor. Oceanfront one-family homes will start at $400,000.

One-bedroom Condo units will start at $140,000 and two-bedroom units will start at $180,000. The price structures will afford many first-time
buyers the opportunity to own their first home. "I will sit down and show anyone how it is more cost-effective to purchase a two-family home than to rent", stated Les Lerner to the audience who attended a recent Community Planning Board meeting. They also hope to attract "empty-nesters" and young professionals who work in the city.

Although we are within such close proximity to the city, commuting to and from it can indeed be a difficult daily task. Borough President Helen Marshall and local elected officials have recently met with Arthur Imperatore of New York Waterways to discuss the viability of ferry service for the Rockaways. We need to implement alternative forms of transportation. Using the natural "lanes" of our navigable waters makes sense. Benjamin-Beechwood LLC will break ground sometime in the later part of the summer or September between Beach 73 and Beach 74 Street. Although there is an extensive amount of complex site work and the formal ULURP (Uniformed Land Use Procedure) is still about a year away, Les Lerner states, "If we sell out in two years, we could expect to build out in four."

Requests For Proposals are expected to go out in a month or two on the nearly two hundred remaining acres of the eastern portion (east of Beach 57 Street). The developer for that phase should be selected by late fall. With this new wave of development, comes a new tomorrow. We are
about to rise to its occasion; and with Arverne-By-The-Sea...the best is yet to come!

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