2008-05-16 / Front Page

CB 14 Approves 8-Story Buildings

Wants Environmental Study Of Area
By Nicholas Briano

Community Board 14 seconded the decision of its Land Use Committee on Tuesday evening, voting by a wide margin to approve the city's certified zoning plan that would safeguard most of the peninsula's low-density neighborhoods while allowing for eight-story buildings in the Beach 116 Street shopping area and along Rockaway Beach Boulevard between Beach 102 and Beach 105 Streets.

At the same time, the community board requested that the Department of City Planning conduct an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the proposed rezoning, a study that could possibly find problems that would be caused by implementing the plan.

The study would take a closer look at all of the environmental variables associated with increasing both the building density and the population along Beach 116 Street.

A motion to approve the zoning plan was passed unanimously at the Land Use Committee meeting on Thursday, May 8.

The vote of the full board to approve the plan and ask for the EIS was made at CB14's monthly meeting at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Rockaway Beach. The motion was passed 32-12 in favor of the committee's recommendations.

The plan, when finalized, will change zoning regulations in five neighborhoods along the peninsula, which are, Far Rockaway, Edgemere and Somerville on the eastern end of the peninsula; Rockaway Beach and Rockaway Park in the western section.

Included in the proposal is the controversial provision that would allow for eight-story buildings on Beach 116 Street from Rockaway Beach Boulevard to the boardwalk, in an effort to promote com- mercial development and expansion. Virtually everywhere else will experience lower density re-zoning that would help preserve the one- and twofamily homes along the peninsula and prevent overdevelopment.

The Community Board's approval of the certified plan is part of a seven month process, called a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which makes all zoning changes official. The borough president now has 30 days to review the zoning plan and recommend any changes to City Planning. The City Council then has another 60 days to give it the final approval. Queens Director of City Planning John Young says modifications such as a comprehensive environmental impact study are permitted during the certification process.

However, City Planning is not obligated to conduct an EIS, considering that the agency has already performed an Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS) prior to certifying the plan and found no significant problems that would justify performing a comprehensive environmental impact study of Beach 116 Street.

"We are going to ask them to conduct more studies," Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska said after the meeting. "The EAS showed no impacts on the area and therefore they don't have to perform any further studies, but we will ask them to do more studies during the process, and we will move forward from there."

Young told the crowd at the CB 14 meeting that modifications to the plan can be made without throwing the entire plan out, and that the community's suggestions over the past months have made the plan stronger.

"The plan has benefited from the community's feedback," Young said. "All the discussion solidified this proposal."

The community board may have passed the plan, but the thought of eight-story buildings along Beach 116 Street has raised levels of concern with nearby residents, who protested fiercely against the proposal at the meeting.

Residents argued that higher density buildings would bring more people to the already-overcrowded Beach 116 Street, ruin the ocean views, and destroy the "charm" of the entire area.

"We are being held hostage to this plan," resident Michael O'Toole shouted during his turn at public speaking. "Listen to the people who live here!"

O'Toole was one of nearly 20 residents who were granted one minute of public speaking time at the meeting.

Most residents who spoke on the issue used their time to voice displeasure about the re-zoning of Beach 116 Street, with each speaker generating a chorus of loud and aggressive shouting, clapping, and chanting from the crowd.

Board member Michael Tubridy voted 'yes', to approve the plan on Thursday at the Land Use Committee meeting, but on Tuesday night was the most vocal of the board members in opposition. He cited the lack of environmental assessments performed as the primary reason for his change of heart.

"NO! We want a modification of Beach 115 to Beach 117 Streets," Tubridy shouted. "This is the only upzoning taking place on the peninsula and a comprehensive enough environmental assessment has not been done." Another board member in opposition was Dan Mundy, who argued that transportation near Beach 116 Street, or anywhere else in Rockaway for that matter, is not sufficient to support a higher density area. Hundreds of additional people using the inefficient transportation system would only add to the troubles that already exist, he said.

"How can you increase density without a sufficient transit hub to get people to work?" Mundy asked. "There has to be a way to connect these two issues before adding hundreds more people to the area."

Connecting the two may have sounded like a good idea to Mundy and others, but officials say that there is no requirement to improve transit operations in order to pass a new zoning proposal.

Although the proposal elicited mostly negative views from the attendees, there were some favorable reactions to the plan.

One resident who has lived in Rockaway for nearly 50 years said it is time to change Beach 116 Street.

"It is time for a change, I think," he said. "Let's pick the lesser of two evils here and try to develop Beach 116 Street and encourage some growth."

ABelle Harbor board member drew a hasty response when she suggested that the Beach 116 Street zoning plan really isn't that bad.

"If we don't up-zone, we will help create more SRO hotels and add to the problems," she said in regard to the possibility of the Lawrence Hotel reopening. "I don't know what the big deal is here. We are not that quaint of a town where we shouldn't up-zone this block. There is no charm on Beach 116 Street. The conditions are disgusting and embarrassing, and unsafe to walk down at night."

Rockaway Park residents in attendance took serious offense to her comments and attempted to overrule the public speaking moderator and chairperson, Dolores Orr, on several occasions thereafter to shout back at the board member.

Board member Jeff Cohen, who said that he voted in favor of the plan despite his understanding of why people felt angry, pointed out to those who were in opposition to the plan why Beach 116 Street must be changed.

"Developers haven't come to Beach 116 Street, and unless we do something Beach 116 Street will never improve and the developers will never come," Cohen said. "It is a disgusting place where people are afraid to go at night."

Gaska encourages people to take advantage of the opportunity to have their voices heard during the certification process. The borough president will be holding a public hearing on the proposal.

"Come out and get involved if you are against it," Gaska said. "Some of the people had good suggestions and provided reasonable alternatives."

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