Once a thriving vacation destination, the Rockaway peninsula in outer Queens has declined in recent decades. Slated for redevelopment but held back by the recession, the area was battered by Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, leaving it even more in need of restoration and repair. As a result, a collaborative and far-reaching design competition called FAR ROC (For a Resilient Rockaway) was created to present a smart, sustainable planning solution for area renewal. “The goals of the FAR ROC competition [are] consistent with the goals of successful long-term housing recovery, which is not just to repair and rebuild, but to rethink and redesign our coastal communities so they are stronger and safer than ever,” Brad Gair, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, has said.
In the 1800s, New Yorkers escaped the hot confines of the city in favor of summers on the Rockaway’s long stretches of sandy beaches. Over the next century, weekend bungalows turned into year-round homes for a diverse mix of middle-class residents, but zoning laws, distance from the city, and poor public transportation options eventually led to the area’s downturn. Bungalows were razed to make way for subsidized housing and nursing homes, and businesses and stores left, creating a commercial vacuum and low-income area. Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed thousands of homes and wreaked considerable other damage, was the proverbial last straw.
The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, along with three private developers—The Bluestone Organization, Triangle Equities, and L+M Development—and the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and Enterprise Community Development, an affordable housing organization, all sponsored the competition, which “brought together international attention, a really strong focus on the needs of the community, and the idea that the results ought to be incorporated into future planning for the site,” says Bomee Jung, Deputy Director of Enterprise’s New York office. Centered around a city-owned 81-acre site called Arverne East, the design brief included specifics such as open space, housing units, commercial space, and nature preserves, along with overall ideals like resiliency, sustainability, and potential for replication.
Out of the 117 proposals from over 20 countries, the winning proposal by Swedish firm White Arkitekter was announced this past October. Sustainable, smart, and modern, the plan provides a holistic solution that attempts to satisfy the community’s desire for better commercial activity, mixed-income housing, and access to transit. There’s a wetland park with places for children to play, pedestrian and bike paths connected to transit and a suggested shuttle bus system, a vast range of housing types (with solar cells and rainwater harvesting), and dedicated spaces for commercial enterprise.
Shoring up the whole plan is a sophisticated drainage system—a resilient underpinning—that includes a sand motor, bioswales, and foldable building façades. “It’s a best-in-class master plan,” says Jung. “It takes everything we’ve learned about how to do these redevelopments and looks at specific ways that are responsive to this particular site’s risk of coastal hazards.”
Perhaps most importantly from a larger perspective, this competition allows for replication at other sites across the country that might also be facing economic decline combined with the pressures of imminent environmental change. In the past few years, many communities have suffered economic and physical losses from storms and flooding. Rather than having to recover and rebuild neighborhoods, master plans such as this one can help minimize damage and prevent widespread destruction through smart, sustainable, thoughtful design at the outset. Which ultimately sounds like a winning idea.