Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Stated Meeting: Rezoning Jamaica

With the exception of three Queens council members, the City Council overwhelmingly approved a rezoning plan for Jamaica, Queens on Monday.

Councilmember Thomas White, who represents part of Jamaica, did not attend the meeting. A staffer said White is out of town, and their office was unaware the vote was coming up.

As part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC, Jamaica has been slated for a large scale rezoning aimed at creating a transit hub for New Yorkers and tourists traveling to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The rezoning is the largest in the city's history – a resounding 368 blocks.

At its stated meeting, the council also overrode a mayoral veto of legislation that guarantees a student's right to carry a cell phone to and from school and approved a bill that prohibits the Department of Sanitation from issuing violations during certain hours in the workday.

Revitalizing Jamaica

According to the city's Jamaica Plan, the rezoning will revitalize downtown Jamaica's business corridor, while protecting the neighborhood's residential character. In some areas, development will be limited to two stories, and in others buildings could climb to eight stories.

Supporters of the plan said the neighborhood's current zoning allows for out-of-scale development in residential areas while limiting density near its transportation hubs. The rezoning, administration officials said, would correct this by directing development around mass transportation stations and away from residential areas.

The plan is sure to change the scale and face of the neighborhood, but would right much of the limited zoning in place now, according to supporters . Beyond Jamaica's downtown, the plan also changes zoning in the neighborhoods of South Jamaica, Hollis and St. Albans, as well as the southern edges of Briarwood, Jamaica Hill and Jamaica Estates.

For years, the city has been drafting the Jamaica Plan. Because of its proximity to the AirTrain to John F. Kennedy Airport, the city saw potential for Jamaica to become a vibrant, commercial hub for both residents and those en route to the city's largest airport.

According to Land Use Committee Chair Melinda Katz, the rezoning would add millions of square feet of commercial space to Jamaica's downtown and create 9,500 jobs and 7,500 apartments, about 780 of which would be affordable housing.

"This rezoning effort will help transform and revitalize downtown Jamaica into a vibrant economic engine that will create much-needed jobs for the Southeast Queens community," said Councilmember Leroy Comrie, who represents part of the affected area.

Although the council, voting 45 to 3, overwhelmingly approved the proposal, it was not without opposition. Three Queens council members, James Gennaro, David Weprin and Tony Avella, oppose the rezoning and voted against the plan. The council members claim density slated for Hillside Avenue would overwhelm the neighborhood and that the area's current infrastructure, including the F train, could not handle the increased activity.

"The benefits of this plan are clouded by city planning's overaggressive up-zoning along some portions of the Hillside Avenue corridor," said Weprin, who represents Hollis, which is part of the rezoning area. "And it's because of this irresponsible up-zoning that unscrupulous developers have seized the chance to swoop in on local residents with dollar signs in their eyes."

When the plan was first introduced to the area, it called for higher density on Hillside Avenue, including 12-story buildings. A compromise led to an eight-story maximum height there, but that still did not satisfy some Queens council members.

Residents appear to be split on the rezoning, some hailing the possibility of economic development, big retailers and a large hotel, while others fear their neighborhood will be taken over and lose its mostly two-story character.

Cell Phones In Schools

In an unusual blow to the Bloomberg administration that promises to lead to further confrontation, the City Council overrode a mayoral veto on its cell phone legislation by a vote of 46 to 2. The veto was only the sixth in Council Speaker Christine Quinn's tenure.

The Department of Education prohibits students from possessing a cell phone while they are at school - much to the chagrin of some parents and the City Council - and officials are instructed to confiscate phones and return them only to a parent or guardian.

Both council members and parents have claimed students should be allowed to carry cell phones while en route as a safety precaution.

In July, the council approved legislation that allows students to carry a cell phone while going to or from school. Bloomberg has repeatedly criticized the bill and contended it would do nothing to change the current policy banning phones within school walls.

Quinn said the legislation (Intro 351-A) puts the onus on the Department of Education to establish a policy that would allow students to carry a cell phone to and from school. The legislation is supposed to take effect in 90 days, and council members said they would try to work with the Department of Education to ensure its implementation.

Councilmember Lewis Fidler, the bill's prime sponsor, said the Department of Education should allow students to carry cell phones as long as they are turned off and out of sight in school. In response to allegations that cell phones allow students to cheat, the councilmember said pens and paper are not confiscated because they can be used to cheat. Fidler said he would not rule out suing the administration if the legislation is not implemented.

Councilmember Oliver Koppell was one of two members – along with James Sanders – who voted against the legislation. Koppell said allowing students to carry cell phones would exacerbate disciplinary problems in schools and interfere with education.

Dirty Sidewalks

The council approved legislation by a vote of 48 to 0 that would have the Department of Sanitation issue sidewalk-cleaning tickets from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. instead of from noon to 1 p.m. as it does currently. The department will continue to be able to issue violations between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Sponsored by Councilmember Simcha Felder, the bill (Intro 548-A) enables residents to clear away litter from their properties after returning home from work, typically by 6 p.m. When the department issued violations during the workday, residents could face fines because trash was strewn on their property by a passerby or the wind while they were away from home.

Hunts Point Expansion

In order to comply with state and federal water regulations, the council approved an expansion and upgrade at the Hunts Point Water Pollution Control Plant in the Bronx. The expansion also includes additional park space for Barretto Point Park.

Because of the facility's expansion, the Department of Environmental Protection committed to expand the adjacent parkland and also study the odors coming from the area, which have caused concern in the community.  

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