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Arverne: The city’s most improbable new neighborhood is a new urbanist experiment in the Rockaways

By Philip Nobel

It’s not Florianópolis, the island paradise off the coast of Brazil where Pat McKeever and her husband, Jim, had planned to retire. And it’s not Fort Bragg, California, where they owned and ran a bed-and-breakfast in a Victorian farmhouse overlooking the Pacific. But it’s not a bad view from the third-floor window of the two-year-old two-family townhouse near Rockaway Beach where they moved to be near their grandchildren. There are the neighbors’ tidy houses, many of the same design and all of the same recent vintage, each clad in beige or light-gray siding, white PVC sunbreaks decorating every roof. There are the freshly paved, gently curving streets with residents-only parking and suggestive names (Catamaran Way, Sandy Dune Way). There is a very un–New York sense of calm. And there is the beach, a fine, wide, clean beach where locals gather on the boardwalk.

Turning inland, we see a more complicated, less curated view: the A train rattling along its elevated track a block away, and the decidedly un-beachy neighborhoods beyond it on the bay side of the peninsula. The tops of the old Edgemere Houses, one of the most infamous projects in the city, are visible less than a mile away. Just across the street, a huge lot stretches for seven empty blocks toward a complex of run-down apartment towers in the Brutalist mode. But soon that view is going to change. A tall machine stands at the near corner of the emptiness, ready to drive the first piles for what will be the next and biggest phase of construction in New York City’s newest and most improbable neighborhood.

Arverne by the Sea is a hopeful, sunny place in a part of the city that has seen its share of urbanistic storms. The development occupies one end of the Arverne Urban Renewal Area, 308 acres at its greatest expanse, roughly two waterfront miles of mostly barren blocks and de-mapped streets merging with the emptiness of the ocean to form a single great desolation. It is The World Without Us, a testing ground for urban entropy, a place where a man was once chased and mauled by a pack of wild dogs, a legacy of Lindsay-era slum clearance, Moses-era central-planning hubris, and native New York development inertia. With the support of the surrounding community, Arverne by the Sea—a joint venture of two Long Island developers, the Benjamin Companies and the Beechwood Organization—is attempting to lure back the middle class with a mix of value and nostalgia.

The plan was drawn up by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, a firm associated with the master planning of Battery Park City, and it employs the same kinder, gentler, history-conscious New Urbanist thinking that made that development a success: an emphasis on traditional streets, generous public spaces, and architecture meant to look old in its newness. Except for the phase known as Ocean Breeze—some 250 subsidized condominium units that serve as a buffer opposite the city-built Hammel Houses—Arverne by the Sea is dressed in a version of that picket-fence-and-clapboard look that is endemic to beach towns from Maine to Florida. Call it Saltwater-Taffy Revival, or Clever-Developer Chic. Here it is extra-incongruous, with apartment towers all around, but that is the fate of a doctrine that aims to mend the failures of the modern planning past by evoking the imagined successes of an unplanned, premodern world.

“People have to buy in to the vision,” says Gerard Romski, the developer’s project director. For prices ranging from $395,000 to just over $1 million for a two-family house, you can have oceanfront living in new construction; mortgage costs offset by your adjoining rental property; a garage and a yard; a Stop & Shop (opening this fall to compensate for a lack of amenities in the area); a YMCA (also under construction); a charter school on-site; a cluster of shops at the renovated Beach 67th Street subway station; and, in time, a marina opposite the development on Jamaica Bay.

Even in the current market, houses in Arverne by the Sea are selling. Seventy-six contracts were signed in 2008, and only two fewer in 2009. Contracts have been signed for about half of the 270 houses now under construction in a phase called the Dunes. In the final section, known as the Tides, there are plans for up to 900 condos over shops and cafés along a main street running from the subway station to the beach.

Though its retail heart is not yet built, the neighborhood is functioning like few in New York ever do. There is a shared pioneer sensibility among the residents, many of whom are firefighters, airport workers, police officers, or Marines stationed nearby, at Floyd Bennett Field. The new population, mostly young couples and first-time buyers, is diverse. Romski estimates the racial mix as “40 percent white, 30 percent African-American, 18 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent Asian.” Neighbors know each other’s names and stories. Doors are left open. People drop by.

In the last of the big storms in March, the winds blew roofing off some of the houses at Arverne by the Sea, smashing glass and generally making a mess of the place. The home of Glenn DiResto, a retired NYPD lieutenant and a leader of his homeowners’ association, suffered some of the most severe damage. A few days after the storm, he is out casing the now-sunny streets, talking to his neighbors, mobile phone at his ear, managing a collective response. He is a little agitated—his Tyvek is exposed, his living-room window shattered. But he is still in love with Arverne by the Sea.

“This really is a town that looks like it’s from the Carolinas,” he says.

In many other parts of the city, this Low Country outpost would be seen as an alien intrusion. But this part of the Rockaways has been so thoroughly swept clean of its old forms (grand hotels in the nineteenth century, tiny bungalows in the twentieth) and so thoroughly failed by its new ones (those glowering modern blocks) that anything remotely resembling dignified housing is embraced. DiResto grew up in the old Arverne, in a house on the bay side about four blocks away, where his father still lives. As a true native, he is one of the few residents who move freely between the two worlds, societies as different as their architecture. If there is any resentment toward the new Arverne, he doesn’t feel it. “If not for this development, there would be no revitalization of the area,” he says. “The people that benefit the most may be the people that don’t even live here.”

And with that, DiResto goes back to another of his projects on that post-storm day: helping draft a new Architectural Procedure Booklet with clearer aesthetic guidelines for the neighborhood. No pink houses breaking the beige-and-gray monotony, no lawns overflowing with gnomes. The goal is stasis, to ensure that Arverne by the Sea will always look as pristine and peculiar as it does right now.

New York Magazine, The Neighborhoods Issue, April 14, 2010

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