2006-12-08 / Columnists

It's My Turn

By Vincent Castellano

I went to the YMCA groundbreaking on November 9 at Beach 73 Street.

It was a nice event. The mayor was there, the area was cleaned up and all the politicians lined up with shovels to have their picture taken. Then the mayor announced that Stop & Shop signed a lease for the property across the street for a 65,000 square foot store, and he also announced a developer was selected for Arverne East. True to form, the mayor even took credit for the absolutely beautiful weather. He may be short, but he is not shy.

While the speeches droned on, I took a few minutes to look around. The desolate beachfront strewn with garbage was no more. On two sides of me were lovely new homes; I was standing where children will play in an indoor pool two years from now, and behind me was an expanse of land that was being prepared by heavy equipment for the construction of almost 2,000 apartments and homes. If my hearing was better I would probably hear the surf crashing on the beach a block away. It was a genuinely exciting moment.

As a friend said to me, we were always shown pretty pictures by potential developers over the years, but this time the picture became a reality. Apparently it is true, if you build it, they will come, because everything Arverne By The Sea has built has been sold. Everything! Although there are still many hurdles to overcome before we can unequivocally call Arverne By The Sea a success, the YMCA groundbreaking was more than just a good day for Rockaway, you might even call it an historic day. Perhaps it was the first day where I could see that we were changing the face of Rockaway.

The Arverne Urban Renewal Area had been sitting there, abandoned by a distant and disinterested city government for 40 years. It became a cancer that virtually destroyed adjacent neighborhoods. In the intervening years, various development plans have been proposed, analyzed and ultimately discarded.

But the development of Arverne and Edgemere was not by accident and it was not by luck. It was the result of planning that started twenty years ago with a small group of community leaders to create a development strategy for Rockaway. It was obvious that for Rockaway to realize its potential, you had to remove the urban blight created by city government in Arverne and Edgemere. No one would invest in Rockaway with hundreds of acres of vacant city owned land that could as easily become a prison, a casino or another Belle Harbor. The uncertainties of Arverne and Edgemere had to be resolved before we could attract significant private investment.

After months of discussions, the plan evolved and political support was obtained. Edgemere would have affordable housing, Arverne would be market rate. But they would be mostly homeowners, we would minimize rentals. The local economy would be restored by adding working families with disposable income to offset the immovable poor population that had been dumped here by city government for decades. Schools would be added as the population grew. Since we could never provide enough local jobs to meet demand, transportation to employment hubs was critical.

Some of this plan you can see happening, some has yet to be realized. But there can be no doubt that Rockaway is moving forward and the days ahead appear to be much brighter than the 60's, 70's and 80's when only small portions of the peninsula were habitable and the rest was a desolate and often dangerous wasteland.

I've been working towards this day ever since those strategy sessions 20 years ago, but I am considered a newcomer to the crusade. There have been dozens of Rockaway residents who have been involved for much, much longer. Some have made their contributions and passed the baton to younger hands but are still around and lucky enough to see their efforts bear fruit, people like Vinny O'Connor, Dan Tubridy, Walter Roberts and even Ed Remsen from his far away haunts as mayor of Montclair, New Jersey. However, many who made significant contributions and offered invaluable wisdom did not make it. Time overtook them. I thought of Mario Russo, Mary Waldron, Bob Jones and Irwin Langer. The danger of mentioning some names is that you invariably forget others who were equally important. My apologies in advance.

I am not suggesting that all of the risks of Arverne By The Sea are behind us. Far from it.

We could always be derailed by a bad economy, high interest rates, a terrorist attack or another plane falling out of the sky.

But perhaps the greatest risk to the development of Rockaway is our own pessimism, our own lack of faith in this unique peninsula we all call home. Is it possible that strangers have more faith in Rockaway than the natives? Do strangers see things the natives don't?

Although I was born here, I was not raised here and only came back to Rockaway in the early 1980's when my wife and I wanted to start a family. Soon thereafter I decided to invest in Rockaway real estate because I believed in the future of Rockaway. I believed that others would look past the weather-beaten appearance, the poverty and the crime to see the natural beauty that I saw. It is enormously gratifying to see that my faith is finally being validated by dozens of builders and investors, and thousands of new homeowners who see what I first saw more than 20 years ago.

My advice to you is to have faith. The best is yet to come.

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