2006-12-15 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

By Keith Goldberg

Keith Goldberg lives in Belle Harbor where he is active in the Graybeards organization, with youth sports and as a member of the school leadership team at the new Scholar’s Academy.

Tuesday night’s meeting regarding the future of the property formerly occupied by the Neponsit Home for Aging was mostly conducted in a very civil manner and brought to the surface some interesting ideas to be considered. Thanks must be given to Lew Simon for ensuring that this meeting was held here in Rockaway rather than hid away from our community somewhere else in Queens with little notice. Thanks also to the hosts at the DSSM Neponsit Adult Day Care, not only for their hospitality, but also for allowing many of us to see the good that can happen when HHC works with and for the community. I do not wish to debate the issues and circumstances that led to the hasty closing of the facility seven years ago. HHC is clearly not interested in reopening the Neponsit Home at a time when they are trying to close other institutions. The question is: what is the best purpose for the property once it is transferred to the city?

The proposal on the board is to develop the site with R1-R2 housing compatible with the zone that exists in Neponsit. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this usage. It will have limited negative impact, require the least amount of work for the city, and raise revenue, though for who and how much is unclear. This is the Path of Least Resistance and at the end of the day, preferable to the property laying fallow for 40 years like the Arverne Renewal Area.

What is wrong however: is the opportunity that will be missed to improve Rockaway to the benefit of all. Rockaway is in the midst of an enormous residential construction boom. Arverne was barren for years. Playland, Dingy Dan’s and Fitzgerald’s were torn down during the last real estate spike but missed the boat. The current boom began with the Playland site finally being developed. Smaller developments followed, and then the question of Arverne was settled as Arverne by the Sea (ABTS) began in earnest. With the big development on board, everyone rushed in to develop every available plot in Rockaway. Some of these have been well done, but many have not, and they have placed significant pressure on the community for traffic/ parking, services/amenities and infrastructure. I believe it has also hindered the progress of ABTS which has the greatest commitment to the peninsula and whose success is the key to what the next 50 years will be like in Rockaway. ABTS has the potential to knit Rockaway back together as surely as the clearing of Arverne created the East and West Ends.

Some interesting proposals were made on Tuesday night. One that was offered and has also been heard many times is for a hotel chain such as Marriott or Westin to develop the property. I cannot fathom why none have made a play to develop a hotel in Rockaway. Those of us here feel there is a definite market. Of course we also feel there should be a Gap, Nine West, Target, and many other retail stores. Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking. These companies are constantly looking to open new markets. They also have very strong criteria for doing so. If building a hotel here fit their criteria, it would have been attempted. These things are driven by market forces and population surveys. You cannot simply wish them to be.

However, some things are necessitated to accompany large scale residential development. The most prominent of these is for schools to accommodate the increased population brought in by these developments. Schools also make a difference in attracting contributing stake-holders who will take real ownership of a community. Think about it. What is the first thing that people, especially emerging families, look at when buying a home? The answer is the schools. Considering that all of these homes are currently for sale, do our current schools have enough ‘real capacity’ to attract the number of real stake-holders that may be doing their research prior to purchasing?

Dr. Kathleen Cashin has undertaken a tremendous restructuring of the public schools in Rockaway that is already paying dividends. Our Middle Schools have been reorganized and our elementary schools are now K-8. Test scores and anecdotal evidence pointed to a remarkable improvement in the first year that I believe will continue. In going through this reorganization process, some Rockaway schools are now underutilized in terms of their ‘rated capacity.’ These ‘rated capacities’ have been calculated with outdated formulas that do not take into account the K-8 organizational structure that now exists. Soon, all of the schools will mature as full K-8’s and will be at or over capacity, in ‘real’ terms. Some schools are already there. Unfortunately, as evidenced at a recent Community Education Council (CEC) meeting, the Department of Education refuses to see a picture that is clear for all, and instead will wait until all our schools are over capacity before considering to build additional schools. By the time they ever actually get built, 10+ years will pass with severely overcrowded schools and everyone asking how this could happen.

An entire generation of students will suffer and overcrowded schools will not attract the stake-holders who will truly ‘renew’ the Rockaways.

If Arverne by the Sea successfully completes its development and the East Parcel follows suit, in addition to all the other development, Rockaway will need AT A MINIMUM, three 800 seat schools to accommodate the children living in these new homes. ABTS has committed to building a school. Whoever develops the East Parcel should be required to do the same. If this is achieved, it will still leave the west end overcrowded. The irony is that all the development, which is creating the need for additional seats, has eaten up all the viable sites that would have been available to build a school.

Kevin Boyle also made an inspiring proposal to create a public/private partnership centered on a small (boutique) Walter Reade type facility for our returning Wounded Warriors that would also include a CUNY Nursing School with a Physical Therapy Program, and a residence for visiting families of the Wounded Warriors, a la Ronald McDonald House. Rockaway has been tremendous in its response to the Wounded Warriors and they have spoken of their love of our community and the wonderful opportunities here for true rehabilitation.

I feel the site is big enough to accommodate both, and that they would be very compatible. A course of study related to the Wounded Warriors/CUNY program could be offered at Scholars Academy to bring the whole project together. A plan such as this would be true to the site’s historical roots of servicing children, and providing health care and recreation. It is in compliance with the deed restriction that is currently in place. Most of all, it will provide what Rockaway is in great need and short supply of, rather than more of what it already has in abundance. If these projects do not come to fruition, the opportunity and market to build housing instead will always be there. Let’s not rush down that path.

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