Rockaway is “a dumping ground,” “the red-headed stepchild” often “forgotten by the city.” Having grown up in the Rockaways, these are familiar refrains. Endless meetings, political gridlock and broken promises make it difficult to channel our legitimate frustration into meaningful action and community empowerment.
Superstorm Sandy brought destruction but also unprecedented opportunity to reimagine and rebuild the Rockaways. Consider Arverne East, the largest site of undeveloped land in NYC - 81 oceanfront acres nestled between Beach 32nd and Beach 56th streets, the elevated A train and the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. Plans are underway for this site to be developed by the Bluestone Organization, L&M Development Partners and Triangle Equities. These plans provide an opportunity for our community to articulate our priorities and ensure that the existing neighborhoods benefit from the changes.
An effort began in the summer of 2013 to develop a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for Arverne East. A CBA is a legally binding contract between a coalition of community based organizations and the developer( s) of a site. The developer agrees to provide specific benefits to the neighborhoods impacted by the project, while the coalition agrees to support the project. If the developer fails to follow through on the agreement, the community has legal recourse. Our new YMCA is an excellent example of a giveback to the community. Had there been a CBA with specific timelines in place, it could have been built sooner and accompanied by many more neighborhood resources.
Rockaway Wildfire has largely facilitated this CBA effort. Formed in the wake of Sandy, the Rockaway Wildfire team - residents of Bayswater, Far Rockaway, Edgemere, Arverne and Rockaway Beach and four experienced activists based in Brooklyn and Queens - has been organizing from the grassroots up, knocking on hundreds of doors, distributing thousands of flyers, hosting over a dozen community forums and meeting with local leaders and experts in various fields. With contributions from Rockaway Youth Task Force and YANA, the resulting input has been synthesized into a draft CBA document.
The CBA draft includes terms on several issues. Employment: local hiring and the construction of a job training center to connect a local work force with industry and economic development. Sustainability: adherence to strong green building standards prioritizing renewable energies. Local businesses: priority to locally owned retailers and service providers. Housing: addressing the needs of Sandy survivors, and a fair percentage made affordable to the people and families of the surrounding zip codes.
Councilman Donovan Richards has been strong in his support of this campaign, advocating for the community with the developers and the city. His job training center ideas align with the desires expressed by residents in a series of open Rockaway Wildfire meetings. We have also met with both L&M and Bluestone, who have given us every indication that they will be conscientious community partners and have expressed a willingness to enter into a CBA contract. It’s up to us to hold them accountable.
While Rockaway Wildfire has thus far done much of the logistical work, multiple groups must work cooperatively within a coalition to clarify and consent to the CBA terms and be signatory to the contract. The burgeoning UPWARD (United Peninsula Working to Attain Responsible Development) coalition is actively growing and seeking new member organizations. Rockaway Wildfire brings to the coalition key supporters, including NYC Labor Information Services, Brooklyn College Center for Economic Democracy and Association for Neighborhood Housing Developers. The Hunter College Graduate Center community planning studio is dedicated to this campaign, providing research and materials. The Urban Justice Center, which represented the Bronx coalition that recently won a CBA for the Kingsbridge Armory, provides legal counsel.
The larger and more cohesive the coalition, the greater the impetus to the developers to accept the community’s terms. The old “crabs in a barrel” paradigm must be abandoned: vying for resources has never served us here in the Rockaways. Our communities, which have traditionally borne the brunt of failed policies and entrenched disparity, can reap significant benefits from the development of our public land only by working together.
Organizations wishing to join the UPWARD coalition or attend its meetings can contact: rockawaywildfire @gmail.com.