In the last week, I’ve had a couple of occasions to visit Jamaica and was delighted to see progress on a number of fronts. What was most interesting to me was while there is not much happening on the sites we at Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) assembled over fifteen years and sold in 2015, there is significant activity on other projects. The conclusion that I draw from this is that what we did to improve the perception of the Downtown through placemaking had more of an impact on its revitalization than our site development projects.
Also, I recently became aware of twenty-minute film about the changes in Jamaica over the last fifty years which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJP0BzmG90I&feature=youtu.be. The film is a nostalgic look at the businesses that were lost from the Downtown from the 60’s through the ‘80’s and the deteriorated conditions Downtown. A good deal of effort was put into this video and I enjoyed watching it. It contains lots of material that was new to me. The film was apparently made by a community member. In the end it raises concerns about possible gentrification brought on by the more recent changes in Jamaica.
GJDC grew out of the Regional Plan Association’s Second Regional Plan (http://library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-Plan2-Draft-for-Discussion.pdf). In the Plan, Jamaica was designated as a “satellite” center of economic activity (along with Newark, Stamford and Brooklyn). The central idea was to encourage office development around the transit hub in Jamaica. Towards that end, GJDC worked to ensure that the AirTrain to Kennedy Airport terminated in Jamaica, and then began to acquire key properties around the train station with the idea of creating sites for office towers. In 2007 (which was unfortunate economic timing), the area was dramatically up-zoned to permit this kind of development. Particular effort was expended in an unsuccessful effort to attract jetBlue, Queens’ largest private sector employer, to the station area for its office headquarters. The market wasn’t buying the concept.
Today around the station two major projects are underway. The first is 300 room Courtyard by Marriott/Fairfield Inn and Suites, being built by a private developer who has become a major player in Downtown Jamaica – investing in a number of key sites. Their project is unsubsidized, as far as I know, and is reportedly using offshore capital for its equity. About a dozen years ago GJDC tried to buy the site for $2.5 million. The current developer bought it for an astonishing $6 million and held onto it for almost a decade before beginning construction.
Adjacent to the Marriott project is a 60,000 square foot parcel, assembled by GJDC and sold in mid-2015 to BRP Companies for a 700,000 square foot mixed-use project. Financing for that project, with Goldman Urban Investments equity and New York City Housing Development Corporation and Department of Housing Preservation and Development subsidies for affordable housing closed at the end of 2016. As the photo shows, while there is some heavy equipment on the site, excavation for the foundation has not yet begun. It may be that construction awaits resolution of the fate of the 421-a property tax abatement program. While the project’s 700 units will be both mixed-income and entirely affordable/subsidized, as a result of the requirements of the Federal Low Income Tax Credit program all of the units in one of the two towers will be for low-income residents. My view, and that of my former colleagues at GJDC, is that the social outcomes of mixed-income projects, like the Moda on Parsons Boulevard are far preferable to concentrating the lowest income people in one building and/or location.
The other major station area project is 300 units of affordable housing on 95th Avenue being built by Artimus Construction. That project will also take advantage of the City’s affordable housing subsidy programs. Artimus is an outstanding organization that does high quality projects. They have a real commitment to the communities in which they work.
The site they purchased is made up of two parcels that we at GJDC regarded as “holdouts” from a much larger, adjacent, 60,000 square foot site owned by the Stark family. GJDC put significant effort into a 1 million square foot mega-project for that site – a Korean-developed Merchandise Mart. The developer Washington Square Partners, the builder Jeffrey Brown, the design firm of Greenberg Farrow, and consultant Jonathan Rose were all involved in that project. The New York City Economic Development Corporation granted $4 million to the project for demolition and remediation of the distressed former meat-packing plant on the property – which at the time was a big step forward for Jamaica. That lot, and a 10,000 square foot lot across 148th Street from the larger parcel also owned by Stark remain empty. With the recent passing of Rita Stark, the family’s principal for decades, there may be some possibility that the situation may change.
But the tail seems to be wagging the dog, and the smaller 20,000 square feet site made up of the two “holdout” parcels is now under active development as the photos show. Artimus has also secured a ground lease for a site on the other side of 94th Avenue now occupied by WEB Foods, where they also plan affordable housing.
The former GJDC marketing center, next to the WEB facility, which was sold to Able Development in the fall of 2015, remains dormant. Able had announced a 250 room Hilton Garden Inn for that property directly across Sutphin Boulevard from the AirTrain Terminal. My understanding is that Able remains committed to the project.
The biggest project underway in Jamaica is on the former Mary Immaculate site across from King Park. It appears that one “luxury rental” new construction building on a former parking lot is near complete. Hundreds of market rate units are also being created within the shell of the former hospital structure. The complex is being developed by the Chetrit family. It is entirely “market rate” and completely without subsidy. The Chetrits at one time had a major interest in what was once the Sears Tower in Chicago (renamed the Willis Tower), which they sold in recent years for what was reported to be a ten-figure gain.
When the St. Vincent’s health care system, called Caritas at the time, went into bankruptcy, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York had a $45 million lien on the property. We at GJDC attempted to intervene in the procedings to hold off the sale, in order to find a high quality use for the site. GJDC’s leadership was deeply concerned about the conversion of the hospital into a gigantic facility for the homeless. We were unsuccessful and the property, along with another Caritas parcel, were sold for less than $10 million to a somewhat notorious Brooklyn-based developer. That developer was primarily interested in developing the other property in the package, St. John’s Hospital on Queens Boulevard, and flipped Mary Immaculate to the Chetrits, also reportedly for less than $10 million. Nothing happened on the site for a number of years, but over the last 18 months the campus has been in active development. The presence of hundreds of market rate apartments on King Park is going to have a major positive impact on Jamaica.
United American Land is developing a 150,000 square foot project mid-box retail project at 160-08 Jamaica Avenue. This is another company with an outstanding track record of building attractive, contextual projects and signing up high-quality tenants. The media has reported signed leases with Burlington Coat Factory and H&M. This should make a major difference in the Downtown. https://therealdeal.com/2016/09/21/hm-inks-35k-sf-lease-in-jamaica/
A number of smaller projects are also under construction in Jamaica, some of them hotels. One of these is a condo project facing on King Park. I noticed on my visit that the McDonald’s restaurant on the corner of Jamaica Avenue and Parsons Boulevard, a key corner, is under construction (the sign says it is a renovation) and down the block it appears that a second Jamaica Starbucks is in the works. EDC has awarded the police garage site on 168th Street to a development group: a project they have been working on for years. The expensive requirements of the NYPD for replacement parking space may remain an obstacle to that project actually going into the ground. GJDC, after terminating its contract with Blumenfeld Development Group for a proposed department store on a parking lot owned by Jamaica First Parking, issued an RFP for the development of that site at the end of 2016.
What is driving all of this change? I would argue that the principal driver is the changed perception of the Downtown, which is the result of the placemaking activities of GJDC and the Jamaica Avenue BID (when it was under the leadership of Laurél Brown). GJDC’s Jamaica Alliance initiative including a horticulture and security program has had a major impact. A range of positive events that were produced by GJDC and the BID, and the BIDs branding efforts raised the profile of the neighborhood and sent a message to the development community that the Downtown was safe and attractive. The opening of three restaurants, promoted by GJDC, reinforced that message (even if the restaurants themselves haven’t been all that financially successful.
The development projects that we at GJDC were directly involved in, which included restrictions on the developers as to design and use, have not yet achieved lift-off. The decades long attempt to stimulate office building development was a bust. The 2007 rezoning of the Downtown, while essential in removing the manufacturing restrictions from key sites, probably over-zoned some of the sites around the transit hub, making them more difficult to develop, as property owners sought to be paid for development rights on their property that were more than the sites can economically justify. Powerful market forces are now at work. My experience is that markets can be nudged, but they can’t be controlled: and it is nearly impossible to do a fine-grained plan for them. I continue to believe that concerns about gentrification and displacement may be misplaced. Alan Erenhalt recently wrote clearly about this in an excellent book review in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/books/review/new-brooklyn-kay-hymowitz.html. As Ehrenhalt so wisely says in his review, “Gentrification has winners and losers. Urban decline makes losers out of everyone.”