2006-09-01 / Columnists

From The Right

The Rockaway Rezoning Battle
By Eric Ulrich

One of the dynamic issues facing Rockaway residents this year is whether or not to re-zone portions of the peninsula. Most people will admit they know very little about the zoning process, other than it either permits or prohibits what can be done on a piece of property. Actually, zoning determines the size and use of buildings, where they are located and, in large measure, the density of the neighborhood. So with all the development going on around the community, is it a good idea to re-zone Rockaway?

It depends upon whom you ask. Some Rockaway homeowners don't like the idea of being told what they can do with their property, especially if it involves down zoning. Others are tired of what they call over development and buildings that many consider to be out of character with the neighborhood. Both sides of the debate recognize that the housing problems facing Rockaway are paramount. A stroll down some streets in Rockaway Park will show the undesirable SRO's (Single Room Occupancies) that detract from the area. These dwellings were originally meant as transient units for temporary residence. Instead, they have become dilapidated structures that reduce the quality of life in the neighborhood. On the western side of the peninsula, the streets of Neponsit are lined with so-called McMansions that some feel are out of touch with the surrounding area. The question remains will re-zoning these communities curb the building abuses and potential overcrowding?

Professor Edward Re, President of the Rockaway Park Homeowners and Residents Association (RPHRA), is also a Registered Architect and a full professor at Pratt Institute and New York University where he teaches continuing education for Architects and Engineers. Re is widely considered by many to be an expert in the area of building codes and zoning. He feels that rezoning is part of the answer and not necessarily the important part and advocates a more practical approach. Ideally, he would like to unify the parking requirements in all of the residential zones. Enforcing the parking requirements for all new buildings and restricting attic space to prevent illegal conversions is also on his wish list. Another suggestion he offered was to take a closer look at the side yard requirement. This would help solve the problem of buildings being constructed too closely together. According to Re, all of these goals can be accomplished by introducing restrictive zoning covenants to the New York City Zoning Resolution without pulling out or disturbing the existing zoning plan.

Ask Re what is really harming Rockaway and his answer is direct, precise and to the point. "The increase in density and SRO'S. Although parking is a serious issue, reducing new building density and SRO'S are the #1 problem in Rockaway. If we eliminated the SRO's, the quality of life would definitely improve," said Re. He points to Times Square as the perfect example of what happens when SRO's are eliminated. "The Disney Store didn't clean up Times Square. Getting rid of the SRO's did!" Re added enthusiastically. For him, getting rid of SRO'S is the best practical solution for decreasing the density in Rockaway. He admits that rezoning worked for other communities but cautioned that what's good for the goose is not always good for the gander.

Re isn't the only one trying to address the situation. At the RPHRA meeting on Thursday June 1, Paul Graziano, a young zoning consultant hired by Councilmember Joseph P. Addabbo, made his case for re-zoning the Rockaways. In his presentation, he laid out what he envisioned as a blueprint for the future of development in Rockaway. However, the data he used from his survey that he conducted proved to be anything but accurate. After his presentation, members of the audience questioned his credentials when it was revealed that some homeowner's property was not accurately reflected on the charts. Many were disappointed to learn that Graziano lacks any formal or informal education in the field of architecture and is not a licensed professional. Unfortunately, the meeting was unproductive and left more questions than answers.

People are still scratching their heads over the issue of re-zoning in Rockaway. Thankfully, this is a long process and one that requires lots of community input. Residents are encouraged to voice their opinions at local civic meetings and at Community Board 14. If you are tired of tall buildings being built, the unavailability of parking spots on the street or the transient neighbors moving in and out next door, perhaps you should stop by one of these meetings and let your voice be heard. A community is only as good as the people who truly care about it.

Despite the 'For Sale' signs that are popping up all over the community, people like Ed Re are not worried. When asked if he would ever move, he quickly responded with "I'm not going anywhere. Rockaway is still number one!"

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I agree with Professor Re that the SRO's are an eyesore and allow transients to move in and out. As a new owner of a condo on 116th street I would like to see improvements in these dilapidated structures. Rebuild not rezone should be encouraged. The community needs a new facelift and I don't think rezoning is the answer. Restrictive zoning which Professor Re eludes to may be the answer and should be considered an alternative approach and a worthy endeavor.

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