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Jamaica Shakes Off Crime and Becomes 'Williamsburgish'

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | March 11, 2013 7:53am

QUEENS — Jamaica, once the commercial center of Queens before succumbing to crime and neglect, is becoming a vibrant hub again with new upscale apartment buildings, an art center, hotels, civic buildings — even tourists.

“I think Jamaica will end up being pretty youthful and ‘Williamsburgish’ at some point,” said Andrew Manshel, executive vice president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, a nonprofit local development organization.

Manshel said it was hard to predict how long this process may take, but in the meantime the amount of foot traffic on Jamaica's streets has the neighborhood resembling Williamsburg.

“A lot of exciting things are going on in Jamaica,” said Yvonne Reddick, district manager for Community Board 12. “A number of new businesses and new stores have opened up. But we are looking forward to more.”

Residents say the opening of JFK’s AirTrain in 2003 brought a huge change to the neighborhood, which is only minutes from the airport and also boasts access to express trains to Manhattan as well as the Long Island Rail Road.

A number of new hotels have opened for travelers close to the airport, including a Super 8 on Jamaica Avenue, a Ramada on Hillside Avenue, a Sleep Inn on Liberty Avenue and a Quality Inn on 94th Avenue, directly behind the AirTrain Station.

Jay Patel works at the Quality Inn, which opened about three years ago. "It's a very convenient location," he said. “Tourists either go to the city and take one train or go back to the airport and take the JFK AirTrain."

Another advantage is that hotels in the area offer better deals than those in other parts of the city.

At the Quality Inn, for instance, prices start from $79.99 plus tax during the off season and $109 during peak times, when the hotel is usually full, Patel said.

Another big change came with a 2007 rezoning, which covered 368 blocks, said local City Councilman Leroy Comrie.

The rezoning, he said, allowed developers to construct larger buildings.

“The benefits are now just starting to come through and a lot of people are interested in relocating here,” Comrie said.

Moda, a 12-story apartment building, which opened in 2010, offers a 24/7 concierge, two roof-top decks, a gym and a lounge with free Wi-Fi, according to Drew Spitler, director of development for the building's developer, The Dermot Company.

"We felt that this area, with its excellent transportation and new rezoning plan, was ready for an attractive residential development,” Spitler said.

Moda, built with the aid of city-sponsored initiatives, has 346 rental units, including low-, middle- and market-rate apartments, Spitler said.

A barbecue restaurant, Cityrib, that can seat up to 200 people, is slated to open this spring on the first floor of the building. Along with Applebee’s, which opened on Jamaica Avenue in 2010, it will provide more dining options in the area currently dominated by fast-food chains.

“There is a demand for nice restaurants,” said Spitler. “People want to have more food options.”

Spitler said the venue would be operated by the Poulakakos family, which owns a slew of well-known restaurants and coffee shops in downtown Manhattan including Harry’s Café and Steak in Lower Manhattan and the Financier Patisserie coffee shop.

One problem that the area struggles with, residents say, is a negative perception about crime.

“Jamaica has been stigmatized,” said Yvonne Reddick. “People think that if you come to Jamaica, your car is gonna get stolen, your purse is gonna get snatched, you may get shot… But that is not Jamaica,” Reddick said.  “We got crime no higher than some other places.”

Overall, crime in the 103rd Precinct, which includes Jamaica, is up 3.2 percent this year, according to the latest NYPD statistics. But while robberies are up more than 60 percent, the number of shootings is down 25 percent and grand larceny decreased almost 43 percent in comparison with the same period last year.

New development projects can help change the neighborhood's reputation, Manshel said.

The Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, which was founded in 1967 and has its headquarters on 161st Street, initiated many of the improvements in the area.

It helped with getting rid of the elevated train along Jamaica Avenue and lobbied for an extension of the subway along Archer Avenue, Manshel said. The organization also manages about 2,000 parking spaces around downtown Jamaica and has helped beautify Rufus King Park by installing tables and chairs and providing free Wi-Fi.

In 2008, the Bluestone Organization bought a site on 161st Street from the development corporation with plans to develop it into a mixed-use project.

In January, the company broke ground for two nine-story towers that will include 100 affordable units and commercial space. The project is being funded in part by federal, state and city housing credits and subsidies.

It will be the Bluestone Organization's first project in Jamaica, said Jim Angley, Bluestone's senior development manager. Once the project is complete, the organization is planning to move its offices there from Fresh Meadows, Angley said.

“The Bluestone Organization had a vision that Jamaica was going to continue to develop and become a vibrant downtown,” he said.

Another big project is planned for the former Mary Immaculate Hospital, which closed in 2009. The Chetrit Group, which owns the building, has not immediately returned calls, but according to Jamaica officials, the company is planning to turn the former hospital into market-rate housing.

Other companies working on projects in the area include the Arker Companies and United American Land, Manshel said.

There are also efforts to bring a department store to the area, where the first Macy’s outside of Manhattan was once located. The area also used to have a Mays and a Gertz, but all three department stores closed in the 1970s, Manshel said.

Manshel said the neighborhood, which used to be one of the largest shopping areas in New York, suffered after many people moved to the suburbs in the 1960s.

“We would like to get a national department store in downtown Jamaica,” Manshel said. “We are working on creating a space where that could happen.”

Meanwhile, other new retail stores are arriving. A new Home Depot opened in 2007 on 168th Street. Gap Generation, Verizon Wireless and K&G Fashion also recently opened in the area.

The Greater Jamaica is currently working on bringing in a high-end hotel to 94th Avenue and Sutphin Boulevard. Another project includes plans for a mixed-use building on Archer Avenue and Sutphin Boulevard, Manshel said.

Jamaica is on the right track, Manshel said, and it has benefits that will attract new populations and businesses.

According to the statistics provided by the Greater Jamaica, 643,000 people live within 5 miles of the shopping core in downtown Jamaica.

“It’s also a place where people can come and be able to afford space and have an easy commute,” Manshel said.