Donovan Richards is the City Councilman Trying to Turn Things Around in Eastern Queens

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Donovan Richards has represented parts of Southeast Queens and the eastern end of the Rockaways on the City Council since 2013, when he was elected to fill the seat of his mentor, Councilman James Sanders. Richards, 33, was raised in the area, growing up in many of the neighborhoods he now represents. Currently living in Rosedale with his wife of six years, Tameeka, and their 14-month-old son, Donovan III, Richards spoke to the Commercial Observer about his efforts to help grow a community sorely in need of development.

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Commercial Observer: Talk a bit about your background and how you got into politics.

Richards: I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, born to teenage parents. My mother had me when she was 17. With teenage parents, jobs were tough—they were getting by. When I was born, I came home to South Jamaica, then we moved throughout my childhood to other parts of Jamaica, St. Albans, Hollis, Rosedale. I didn’t grow up in the Rockaways, but my grandfather and aunts lived in Far Rockaway. I know my constituents. I went to Jamaica High School, then Redemption Christian Academy. I ended up at Nyack College, which is a Christian college, where I studied communications, radio and TV. While I was there, I had a friend who was killed on March 13, 2003. That’s how I ended up in the City Council. I met James Sanders, my predecessor, at a gun violence meeting that year. I didn’t know anything about politics. He offered me an opportunity in November 2003, and the rest is history.

What did you do for Sanders?

Everything. First I interned. Then I became a community liaison, then a scheduler, a district manager—I ran his offices—then deputy chief of staff, then chief of staff. I was sworn in on March 13, 2013—the 10th anniversary of the day my friend was killed. I didn’t choose the date.

You went on a mission to Haiti when you were a kid. How did that trip affect you?

I was 13 or 14 years old. I always loved the idea of community service. I got it from my grandmother, who was really into helping people, and my mother. No matter how little we had, they were engaged in the church. My pastor sends young people from the church on mission trips. He still does this today. Around a dozen church members went to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. We brought supplies. I visited villages. I walked away appreciating just how real poverty is. We stayed in the heart of Port-au-Prince, and I remember it vividly. There were some young Haitians doing hotel-style work, and at night they would knock on my window for goods. We were told not to [give them anything], but I would give it to them anyway—candy, cookies. I remember getting off the plane and seeing M-16s for the first time, and the Haitians flocking to the plane because we were Americans, and as Americans, you’re looked at as having the world.

Talk about the rezoning you’re pushing for in the Rockaways.

The Rockaways, especially East Rockaway, has been a place where there’s historically been a lot of city land, and a lot of disinvestment. The infamous late Rita Stark [the real estate heiress] owned land there that sat desolate for 30 years. When I was a kid, I remember passing desolate Mott Avenue. There’s a mall with nothing in it, and it’s still the same today—there are two stores in the mall. Working with the mayor, we pushed eminent domain in that conversation, and that’s part of the rezoning package. She just died, but her estate is now working with a private developer on that site. If you want better commercial [retail] opportunities, you have to do housing, too.

So you’re pushing for more residential at the site?

Yeah, but more importantly, more commercial and community facility space, which is the biggest priority to the community. But I realize we’re not gonna get there without the density.

Where does that stand?

In the mayor’s State of the City last year, he announced $91 million for Far Rockaway. We also secured around $30 million for a new library, which is going to start construction this summer. We secured around another $30 million to do plaza space, and $26 million for downtown infrastructure. And this is before we even finalized the rezoning.

You recently got approval for a new ferry stop in the Rockaways. How has that been working out?

It’s working out good for the western end of the Rockaways, but not the eastern end, which I represent. All transportation alternatives for the Rockaways are a win for the community. One of our struggles has been that—and we’ve communicated this to the [New York City Economic Development Corporation] and to the mayor—a majority of the residents live on the eastern end of the Rockaways, but they can’t get to the ferry because the ferry is on 108th Street. By the time you get there, you might as well get on the A train, and the A train is dismal. You can get to Florida by plane as fast as you can get to Manhattan by train—I timed it. We got a compromise with the mayor on the return of the ferry, and that would be to run a satellite bus up to it, unless we figure out a site for the ferry dock. There is an ongoing study to figure out the feasibility of an additional ferry stop in the Rockaways.

There have been a number of hospital closings in the Rockaways. Are there any plans to replace them? 

That’s a question for the governor. I welcome the governor putting up more money for hospitals, but we’re just not seeing the state create them. The thing now is, How do we create more healthcare uses in the Rockaways? We’ll start with St. John’s, which was recently successful in securing $10 million from the state, so they will be expanding the emergency room. That’s huge, because if you go there today, it can’t hold the population we have. [We need to] create healthcare facilities like Urgent Care, because we’re seeing people come to the hospital with minor things, like a scrape on the arm, and that’s taking up room in the [emergency room]. Then we just did some senior housing, 151 units on Beach 32nd Street, and we have an agreement from the developer to work with St. John’s to take 10,000 square feet at the bottom to do geriatrics.

The city also just issued a [request for proposals] on a city site in downtown Far Rockaway, and the criteria listed is a healthcare facility. So there’s a possibility of getting a healthcare use on that site. Then we recently announced the expansion of the Addabbo Health Care Center on 67th Street, which is around a $30 million project. The groundbreaking for that will be in August.

Lastly, the Peninsula Hospital site is being demolished as we speak, and eventually there will be a conversation about growth on that site, and one of the things [we believe] is there has to be a healthcare use on the site. That will be an ongoing conversation.

What’s happening with Build It Back [the program for victims of Superstorm Sandy]?

It’s making progress. We’ve had a lot of progress in Edgemere, but there’s still a whole lot more work to do. We’ve hit a lot of snail-pace issues because the government has gotten into the business of building now. In the future, that needs to be a big question mark: Does government need to be involved in this process? Should we just give homeowners money and let them figure it out? That might have been the better option here. One of the things we’re working with Build It Back on now is, How do we move people out of danger? For people living on the bay, how do we move them further inland? We’ve been successful in building homes for at least a half dozen homeowners—we’re building them homes for free. So how do we make sure it’s more resilient as we move forward? Until every home is rebuilt, I’m not happy.

Richards in his eastern Queens district. Photo: Yvonne Albinowski/for Commercial Observer
Richards in his eastern Queens district. Photo:
Yvonne Albinowski/for Commercial Observer

What’s retail like in the Rockaways now?

It’s very interesting, because we have a very low vacancy rate in Far Rockaway, but the issue is the diversity of the type of retail. People want to see more family and more destination retail, so that’s an ongoing conversation with rezoning. That’s why we’re rezoning. And we’re rezoning to [R7-1, which encourages lower apartment building heights on smaller lots and, on larger lots, taller buildings with less lot coverage], that’s the proposed rezoning, text amendment change that City Planning has put out, and it’s a step in the right direction, because it’s going to get us a lot of commercial [retail].

What do you think the governor’s revitalization project for JFK airport will do to the area?

His investment definitely makes the Rockaways more appealing. There was a notion that people didn’t want hotels on the beach, and I was like, that’s crazy. Why wouldn’t hotels wanna be here? It’s a beach. That’s what Rockaway was historically—a nice waterfront, beachfront hotel resort world.

What effect will the JFK project have on jobs?

It’s going to have a huge impact. We have worked very closely with our partners in the governor’s office and inked a hiring goal with local organizations in the Rockaways, so we’ll be monitoring it as it moves forward, but it can have a huge impact. One of the other things we have to figure out is transportation. [The city should consider] running a ferry to JFK. It would make so much sense, and that would connect people to the airport even easier, which would create even better job opportunities. I set a goal to reduce unemployment in Rockaway by 20 percent by the time I’m outta here. I have guys and girls on projects in the Rockaways who haven’t worked in 10 years making $52 an hour as we speak, and getting picked up permanently [on jobs]. There’s a lot of optimism, and it’s just about making sure that there’s a tracking system in place and that we’re following up on goals.

Three buildings citywide have been killed because of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). Do you think the rules on this need to be revisited?

On one project that was voted down in Park Slope, there was no affordable housing, and that was important to the local council members. So in a case like that, where developers are trying to skew the rules and not want to do 11 units, council members were like, “How can you not do affordable housing in New York City at this moment?” It’s needed. MIH isn’t perfect. We’re going to have to reevaluate it as we keep going.

What are your thoughts about the potential for gentrification in Far Rockaway?

I think gentrification is the wrong word to use. I like the word “growth.” This is why we fight in Far Rockaway for affordability for everybody, with a diverse core of housing for the entire neighborhood. With $91 million in investment coming in, everything’s gonna go up. There are factions in the Rockaways that say, we don’t want more housing. But that’s just not reasonable in New York City at this moment. As the mayor says, and I agree with him on this, gentrification is gonna happen whether you want it to or not. There are people being pushed out, even without the $91 million investment. There were people being pushed out after Sandy. Their rents were rising. So, how do we now harness that and make sure we capture new growth but also make sure people who’ve been there for a long time still have access to the amenities, access to a better neighborhood, a safer community and better transportation options? Part of that comes with investment.