Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Far Rockaway Gets Support for Commercial Revitalization after Superstorm Sandy

Kevin Alexander, ED of RDRC giving APA planners a
tour of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.
As a member of the APA-NY Metro Chapter's Economic Development Committee, I am so pleased to announce the release of a report outlining post-recovery recommendations for the Rockaway Development & Revitalization Corporation (RDRC).

It Takes a Village
The aptly named "Sand Bar" along the
destroyed boardwalk in Far Rockaways, Queens 
After Hurricane Sandy hit, it was clear that many waterfront communities would need tremendous help with recovery, but connecting those in need with resources quickly can be difficult following a massive natural disaster like Sandy. The hurricane effectively resulted in the closure of 90% of all businesses in some areas of the Far Rockaways. Anyone involved in community development in the area was being besieged by calls for help, and figuring out how to manage and deploy those resources is a challenge onto itself. Like many others in the region I wanted to find a way to help, and so I reached out to my friend and Coro NL alum  Kevin Alexander, Executive Director of RDRC. His needs were herculean, and like many others affected by the storm, he was struggling to figure out where to begin. The first thing we did was set him up with Lucky Ant, a location-based crowd source funding site to raise a few thousand dollars for local businesses. I then put him in touch with James Rausse, the new President of the APA-NY Metro Chapter. Together we hatched a plan to engage interested local planners in a strategic planning exercise that would help Kevin develop a short term action plan for his organization's recovery response efforts. Our early efforts were further aided by yet another friend, Anat Gerstein of Anat Gerstein Inc, http://anatgerstein.com/ who helped secure critical press and television coverage. It's moments like this when you realize how critical relationships and networks are to getting things done quickly!

Diagnosing the Challenges - APA takes the lead
The APA NY Chapter was among the most significant outcomes of the effort to help RDRC. APA NY galvanized dozens of urban planners throughout the region and nation in an effort to diagnose the challenges and define a feasible recovery strategy for RDRC to follow. Volunteer survey teams, led by Mandu Sen and Nina Arron, approached a total of 297 businesses over the course of five months. The findings made it clear that even months after the recovery had begun, there remained a significant lack of coordination among City, State and Federal agencies. A key finding of the report found that most businesses had "difficulty taking advantage of available financial relief and other relief  because of the complexity of the required paperwork. Business owners did not have a clear understanding of the different roles of each government agency nor of the amount of time they should expect to wait for assistance." While "one-stop" shops for financial relief had been set up to help, we found that many business owners could not take advantage of these resources. The distance of these locations from their place of business made it difficult for them to pay a visit. Some business owners also had concerns about confidentiality and resisted visiting these locations. In other cases, the owner was often the only one available to tend to the store, making a visit impossible during store hours. Moreover, the fact that so many automobiles had been totaled during the storm made transportation to and from these centers very difficult.

APA Planners in action, including
James Rausse and Kevin Alexander in front of a
closed Key Foods grocery store. 
Offering Recommendations
One of the most significant recommendations in the report is that of a mobile recovery unit funded and staffed by Federal, State and Local governments to educate and provide one-stop technical assistance to businesses applying for grants, loans, and other resources. This would enable business owners to set up appointments and pay the mobile center a visit in close proximity to their place of business. The report encourages RDRC to apply for discretionary funding from City Council or private foundations and banks to seek capital needed to purchase a vehicle for this purpose.

Larisa Ortiz and Kevin Alexander in
front of a damaged business
While the report focused on small businesses, it also outlined a series of recommendations for transportation and housing, including the coordination of lower cost fares with the Long Island Railroad in light of the closure of local subway lines and the loss of many cars that had been waterlogged and rendered unusable.

For more on the report and the local APA-NY Metro Chapter, click here.

Thank you's are in particularly order to some of the planners who made sure this report made it to the finish line, particularly Hillary Papineau, Heidi Exline and Mandu Sen of the Business Recovery/Food Access Team!

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