Though much has changed in Jamaica, Queens, since 1961, one thing that has not is the zoning map. For the past five years, the Department of City Planning (DCP) has been hard at work on a new zoning plan to balance economic growth downtown while protecting the surrounding suburban streets from overdevelopment, while also emphasizing mass transit, sustainability, and affordability. The draft plan,which was released on January 29, will be the second largest rezoning in city history, encompassing 368 blocks.
“We call this strategy fine-grained zoning,” DCP commissioner Amanda Burden said in an interview.“We looked at every street and lot and block to find the existing use and look at what is appropriate for the strength of the neighborhood.”
The greatest strength in Jamaica, according to planners, is its transportation assets. The area is served by the F train along Hillside Avenue, and the E, J, and Z trains along Archer Avenue. The Long Island Railroad’s Jamaica Station serves 10 of the 11 LIRR lines and adjoins the new AirTrain Station,which combined serve more than 100,000 riders a day.DCP hopes that by increasing density around these transit hubs, it can encourage development without exacerbating Jamaica’s congestion problem.
Under the new plan, a high-density commercial and mixed-use zone will replace the industrial zone surrounding Jamaica Station. One-story repair shops and warehouses create a barrier between it and downtown Jamaica.Any displaced businesses will relocate to industrial zones in eastern and southern Jamaica,which will increase in density so as not to threaten business investment in the rezoned areas.
City planners also hope Jamaica’s access to John F.Kennedy Airport will attract corporations.“It will facilitate business centers from all over the world,”Burden said. “Travel-related, shipping-related—it can be anything that has to do with global business.” She added that the downtown area has potential for four million square feet of office space along with hotels and apartments.
The suburban streets that are so quintessentially Queens will be down-zoned to protect their character. The current zoning allows multistory apartments,which John Young, director of the DCP Queens office, described as backwards.“It actually encourages tear-down and build-up instead of preservation.”The new zoning will lower the densities to protect the detached and semidetached one- and two-family houses typical in the area.
To offset the loss of housing potential in these down-zoned neighborhoods, and again emphasize mass transit, densities have been increased as high as 12 stories along the major thoroughfares of Jamaica and Hillside avenues and Sutphin and Merrick boulevards. Limits have been placed on the maximum floor area ratio (FAR) along these corridors to encourage affordable housing for those who might be priced out the new development. Developers can only build out to the maximum FAR if they make 20 percent of units affordable or subsidize equivalent housing within a half-mile.
Planners have also tried to address the increased activity generated by new houses and businesses. In addition to the masstransit focus, some streets and sidewalks will be widened, new interchanges will be created, and below-grade parking will be required in the densest areas.
Local politicians familiar with the plan expressed a range of opinions on it. Councilor Leroy Comrie said,“We have to ensure that whatever plan is final protects whatever residential community it abuts.” He also raised concerns about flooding, given a high water table, but expressed general optimism toward the project.
Queens Borough President Helen Marshall was more skeptical.When asked what concerned her most about the plan, she said three things: “Traffic, traffic, and traffic.Not to mention parking.”
“We’re concerned about the little guy,” she added.“I’m not opposed to it, I’m just worried about overdevelopment. People come to Queens for the serenity and the backyards, for its calm nature.”