On the left, current conditions of a dilapidated Rockaways shopping strip. On the right, rendering by Edelman Sultan Knox Wood/Architects LLP of new community center.

Patricia Simon stands in front of an abandoned, fire-ravaged commercial strip on Beach Channel Drive in the Far Rockaways, running through the most pressing needs of the low-income community she serves. “If you could see the residents with their shopping carts, walking (down the street on Saturdays), she says, “it’s a sight to be seen.” Simon, executive director of Ocean Bay Community Development Corp., says public housing residents and others in the Edgemere neighborhood on the Rockaway Peninsula have no choice but to trudge more than 20 blocks, or to wait for a city bus, in order to do their grocery shopping. In this U.S.D.A-designated food desert, that’s how far they must go to buy fresh food.

But help is on the way. Ocean Bay CDC and Asian Americans for Equality have teamed up to build a new state-of-the art retail center where that dilapidated commercial building now stands.  The 21,000 square foot facility will include a modern supermarket, plus a pharmacy, hardware store and new headquarters for Ocean Bay CDC. Simon says the Ocean Bay Retail Center will be like “manna from heaven” for area residents.

Thomas Yu of AAFE and Patricia Simon of Ocean Bay CDC stand in front of the decaying commercial center in the Far Rockaways.

The project in the Rockaways will bring critical local services to a struggling community and also generate new jobs in an area burdened with a 14% unemployment rate. But there’s a bigger picture, too.

Our affiliates, Renaissance Economic Development Corp. and Community Development Fund, were on the ground in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to provide small business rebuilding and home repair loans. The community was hard hit by the storm. To this day, there are many vacant parcels and abandoned homes, buildings that have never been fixed. The neighborhood suffered from years of disinvestment long before the big storm hit.

Scenes from the abandoned commercial strip in the Rockaways that will soon be transformed.

The devastation of Sandy led to a comprehensive community planning initiative. Funded by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), it was a collaboration among Ocean Bay CDC and AAFE, as well as Hester Street Collaborative, a Manhattan-based organization that specializes in community-driven urban planning. During many public meetings over the course of several months, residents of public housing developments in the area and other residents identified top priorities for their neighborhood. The final report, issued in December of 2014, Rockaways: Community Planning + Envisioning, called for an emphasis on employment services, youth activities, healthy food and banking.

In March of 2015, the New York City Housing Authority selected AAFE and Ocean Bay CDC to develop a commercial and community center on land NYCHA owned on Beach Channel Drive.  The facility was a key recommendation of the community visioning report.


An early rendering by Edelman Sultan Knox Wood/Architects LLP of the Rockaways community center.

The facility will include a Key Food grocery, as well as a pharmacy and hardware store. There’s space for a restaurant,  an amenity for local residents who say there’s scarcely anyplace in the neighborhood to sit down for a meal. In addition to Ocean Bay’s neighborhood services office, the site will offer CDFI financial literacy courses through a partnership with Renaissance Economic Development Corp. and Ocean Bay CDC. The ultimate goal is to establish a credit union in the building. There will also be a plaza area, which Ocean bay CDC will program with local events such as job fairs.

The building is being designed by Edelman Sultan Knox Wood/Architects LLP, the same firm handling the renovation of the New York Aquarium. The site will be raised above the floodplain and the building will serve as a disaster resource center, complete with rooftop solar panels and power generators. The area is a brownfield site, so the partners are working with the NYC mayor’s office, NYCHA and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on a comprehensive environmental cleanup plan.

The project will provide the neighborhood with desperately needed local services and jobs. But the new facility will also serve as an invaluable community hub and help stimulate other economic growth in an under-served swathe of the Rockaways.

The collaboration will take Ocean Bay CDC, which has already done so much in service to its local community, to a new level. “In AAFE’s early years,” explains Thomas Yu, “more established organizations came in and mentored us, as we were getting involved in community development projects, and then they passed the baton.” Now AAFE has the opportunity to help another organization grow. Patricia Simon, Ocean Bay’s longtime leader, agrees. “AAFE was built from the ground up,” she says “We’re a small community-based organization just getting our feet wet in development. They have an ‘Each one, teach one’ philosophy.”