2009-03-20 / Front Page

Rockaway Waterfront Alliance Gets a Home

By Nicholas Briano

The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (RWA), a growing non-profit group on the peninsula, has been awarded the former firehouse in Arverne and plans to develop an environmentally inspired visitors' center to house their organization's many public waterfront access programs.

The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance's preliminary rendering of their vision for the Beach 59 Street Firehouse, which they are calling an environmental visitor center for the Rockaways. The property was awarded to the non-profit group last week by the city. The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance's preliminary rendering of their vision for the Beach 59 Street Firehouse, which they are calling an environmental visitor center for the Rockaways. The property was awarded to the non-profit group last week by the city. The former firehouse, which stands at Beach 59 Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, has been closed since 2005 and was awarded to the group last week by the New York City Department of Economic Development Corporation.

The working name for RWA's new facility is The Rockaway Institute for the Sustainable Environment. It will be a $2 million venture, which is currently in preliminary stages, but will ultimately provide an adequate space to institute and host many of RWA's programs and special events.

The property will give RWA a place to call home, which until now has been conducting their activities and programs on the beach, in the parks, or at schools.

"We want to utilize not only the firehouse, but the entire surrounding area," RWA Executive Director Jeanne DuPont said. "One of the many goals is to revitalize the economy in the area by providing and training for green collar jobs. We want to utilize our community and environment."

She added that the surrounding communities of Ocean Bay and Ocean Village will be very involved in the project. Their input will be valued.

"It is a long road that may take several years. But the plan right now is to secure all the necessary funding. Preliminary talks with elected officials and the borough president have generated a lot of interest in the project," she said. "This facility will bring residents together and will incorporate programs with a lot of different community organizations. It will serve as a visitor center for the Rockaways."

She added that there will also be a café and other amenities such as a planned outdoor farmers market and outdoor film screening area to show movies. The proposal called for revitalizing the historical firehouse structure as a center for environmental sustainability, cultural events and green collar job training and to serve as a facility in which to expand on RWA existing environmental programs with local youth.

According to DuPont the location was also critical for their mission because there are a number of residents living in the area with no access to services and programs. In addition, she believed the area is very visible and close to a subway station, which will help boost volunteering efforts once the center opens.

"The location is also important because it is the narrowest area of the peninsula, which provides close access to both the bay and the ocean, making it an ideal visitor center for those participating in programs on both sides on the peninsula."

She did admit that the center would need some source of consistent revenue to keep it up and running, which they plan on generating from the café as well as the ability to book private events.

The center will also be available for community conferences. RWA envisions a center for the community built by the community, according to DuPont.

"We are excited but scared, too," she joked. "This is a huge undertaking, one of which the alliance hasn't had in the past, but I think it is great considering we have no facilities on the peninsula. This will enable us to reach and serve more people."

Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska says, "They were the best group for the site because they have a lot of experience in developing community programs."

Job training for green collar jobs was a big factor, as well, in the decision to award them the property, he said. Green collar jobs are typically found in the environmental and agricultural sectors of the economy.

"There are many steps and requirements that must be met for them to keep the property such as receiving the funding to operate and build the facility. But we are confident they will do everything needed. It should be exciting," Gaska said.

Councilmember James Sanders, Jr. had no comment on the project, but had been a strong advocate for bringing a vocational school to the site that would train students in construction and other skilled trades.

The firehouse, which was originally going to be sold by the city, was a subject of many years of debate to determine what would be best suited for the site. Sanders' idea of a vocational school and housing were speculative. In January 2007 Community Board 14 voted to ask the city not to sell the cityowned property, to give the board time to find a use for the land that would benefit the community.

But Sanders was confident that he would bring the school to Rockaway and even said he secured $500,000 back in 2007 for such a school and had prepared to speak with the Department of Education, architects and engineers about possible work on the building.

One year ago, while defending travel expenses with taxpayer money, Sanders still remained confident and said he was closer than ever to making what he believes is a necessity to this community, a reality.

"Let's face it, not everyone can go to Harvard," he said last year. "This school is close to happening because of the things I learned outside of Rockaway about creating a vocational school."

According to Gaska, the vocational school was on the table, but no developers stepped up to take part in the project.

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