Downtown Jamaica’s History Offers Opportunity For a Renaissance


Glenn Greenridge

Glenn Greenridge

Near the intersection where Jamaica Avenue and Merrick Boulevard meet, the elevated train tracks cast a shadow over Jamaica Avenue east to 168th Street. The stores below—from Sutphin Boulevard to 170th Street—once included Montgomery Ward, Lerner’s, Gertz, Woolworths, Mays, Wertheimer and Macys one block north of Jamaica Avenue on 165th Street.

There were two grand movie theatres—Lowe’s Valencia and the RKO Alden—across the street that featured numerous entertainment options, such as movie-going and concerts.

Some of the smaller retailers included Buster Brown Shoes, Flagg Brothers, Florsheim Shoes, Margarita Pizza, Reval Knox Men’s shop and Chock Full of Nuts.

There was a big controversy around removing the El and questions concerning the survival of existing business arose since the replacement line on Archer Avenue would take some time to be built. As a teenager, I noticed that the replacement opened up Jamaica Avenue and made it more inviting.

There were three bus lines providing transportation to Downtown Jamaica— Red & Tan Line operating off Guy R. Brewer, which was New York Boulevard at that time; the Green Bus Line connected Richmond Hill, South Jamaica and Downtown Jamaica; and New York City Bus serviced Merrick and Farmers boulevards. Most of the bus lines converged at the bus depot at Merrick and 89th Avenue, which also served areas in Long Island. Across the street was the Jamaica Library Branch, which still boasts the largest circulation outside of the central Manhattan Library branches. On the other block in the westerly direction was Macy’s Department Store, which is now known as the Coliseum. The Jamaica Station LIRR had been a vibrant transportation hub throughout this time.

The removal of the El shifted the economy of Jamaica Avenue. Woolworth’s, Gertz, and Macy’s managed to maintain their client base, however, around the time when the RKO Alden and three other movie theatres moved off Jamaica and Hillside avenues, the economic vivacity of the area regressed. Also, the birth of malls pulled customers away from Downtown Jamaica.

In 1988, the Jamaica Center Station was built, moving the E and J trains to Archer Avenue and Parsons Boulevard, leaving only the F train on Hillside Avenue.

The building at One Jamaica Center included the Jamaica Multiplex Cinema, Bally’s Gym, a few restaurants, parking, BOCES Education Center and Carver Bank.

Jamaica Center Station quickly became a major transportation hub connecting the E and J trains to the buses now lined up along Archer Avenue, shuttling Southeast Queens to Far Rockaway.

Not surprisingly, the building of Jamaica Center caused most of the retail east of Merrick Boulevard to decline. In 2007, City Planning implemented the largest up-zoning in the city, which affected 580 blocks—most of which was located in Downtown Jamaica. This up-zoning was done with the anticipation of the revitalization of the downtown business corridor. The real estate and mortgage markets debacle suppressed the potential growth up until the last four to five years, when developers began to take interest in Downtown Jamaica. The Economic Development Summit in November 2012 at York College sparked some local interest and the Regional Planning Association (RPA) was already looking to include Jamaica once again in its 4th Regional Plan.

The Greater Jamaica Development Corporation had some key land holdings that supported the development we see today—The Crossing at Jamaica Station at the corner of Sutphin and Archer Avenue, Hilton Garden Inn at Sutphin and 94th Street and a proposed mixed-use parking/retail/apartment at 168th Street and 90th Avenue. Additionally, eight hotels are either under construction or being proposed.

Southeast Queens has a great opportunity to have Downtown Jamaica return to the vibrant retail corridor that existed years ago. We have Target, Burlington, H&M, Dallas BBQ and Chipotle leading the charge and 1,000 new apartment units already under construction with at least two to three projects coming to Downtown Jamaica. Do not be surprised by the renaissance of Jamaica in as little as three to five years.

Glenn Greenridge is the land use chairman for Community Board 12.

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