Is Downtown Jamaica, Queens, the next hot spot?

JAMAICA, NY—Travel guide publisher Lonely Planet named Queens County the No. 1 Best in the U.S. 2015 destination to visit, which is reflected in the reinvention of neighborhoods like Long Island City and Flushing. But, will Downtown Jamaica soon join them? 

Dena Libner, director of communications & external affairs, NYC & Company, put this into perspective for attendees at a recent meeting of the members of Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC), a nonprofit that plans and advances responsible development to revitalize Jamaica. “Brooklyn was named Lonely Planet’s top U.S. destination in 2005, and we all know the development and extraordinary growth that happened the decade after that,” she said. “It’s a precursor.”

Arthur Fefferman, president, AFC Realty Capital, Inc., agreed with Libner’s assessment. “The forecast is Jamaica will be the next Atlantic Yards [the development in Brooklyn that was renamed Pacific Park and includes the Barclays Center and Long Island Rail Road’s Atlantic Terminal],” he said.

Certainly, hotel development is currently happening in Downtown Jamaica. According to GJDC, not long ago, this neighborhood was home to fewer than 400 hotel rooms; now, there are almost 2,000 rooms in various stages of development. “The borough of Queens is the most active hotel market outside of Manhattan, according to STR,” said Justin Rodgers, managing director, real estate and economic development, GJDC. “In Downtown Jamaica, there are currently six properties in operation for a total of 409 rooms. In the new-construction pipeline for hotels, there are 10 hotels planned in the next year, which will produce 1,953 rooms.” 

Last May, a 74-room Comfort Inn opened between Jamaica and 89th Aves. That month, developer Chris Xu also started construction on a 16-story, dual-branded Marriott Courtyard and Fairfield Inn & Suites. He is also planning a SpringHill Suites on Queens Blvd. Ampiera Group is expected to begin construction later this year on a 179,000-sq.-ft. mixed-use project that includes a 242-key hotel. In July, Able Management teamed up with AFC Realty Capital to develop a $54-million, 24-story, 225-room Hilton Garden Inn, which will break ground soon. 

According to GJDC, there are several other projects in various stages of planning: a 155-key Four Points by Sheraton; a 49-key Sleep Inn; a 283-key property, as well as a 48-key hotel and an 85-key hotel that have both yet to be branded, all from Pride Hospitality Group; and a site with three hotels—a Wyndham Garden, a La Quinta Inn & Suites and a Country Inn & Suites—from developer Chandresh Patel.

Hope Knight, president & CEO, GJDC, stressed how important multiple hotels are. “Before GJDC, I was COO of Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone,” she explained. “We spent a lot of time trying to create a hotel market. When I talked to hotel industry experts, they said we needed to have four or five hotels to really create a hub. What’s exciting about Jamaica is there is going to be a hub, and each of those hotels will feed upon each other.”

“Having three or four hotels is much better than having one hotel because it creates a critical mass,” agreed Fefferman. “It brings more people, shopping and restaurants.”

Fefferman noted that the redevelopment of Downtown Jamaica is a coming together of a number of forces that were years in the making. “Nothing of any significance got developed, and the primary reason is land control. It was all small, individual parcels, no major ownership,” he said. “The second reason is the zoning. There was no comprehensive zoning plan that provided for high-density development. As a result, you couldn’t do anything of significance around Jamaica Station.”

Fefferman credited GJDC for helping to solve both problems. “Greater Jamaica obtained land control of significant parcels around the station and conducted an RFP for developers to come in with their proposals as to what they will develop,” he said. GJDC also joined with the LIRR, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the Port Authority to get approval for a master plan that “allows for high-density development, much in the same way as what happened at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn,” he said.

Though development is happening, Knight doesn’t foresee gentrification in Jamaica. “When you look at the parcels that are being developed, in most cases, you didn’t have residents living at those locations, so there aren’t people being moved out,” she said. 

Both Xu and Fefferman also noted that land costs in Jamaica are significantly cheaper than Manhattan, though the former said development costs are comparable. Xu also noted that many of the developments are connected to major brands, which will help the properties. “I’m building Marriott hotels,” he said. “Courtyard, Fairfield and SpringHill Suites are good brands.”

Xu highlighted the importance of transportation. “The reason I’m building hotels in Downtown Jamaica is, with the transportation, it’s very convenient,” he said, noting that its 3.5 miles to JFK International Airport with access on the AirTrain, and 20 minutes to Manhattan on the LIRR. “There’s also the subways,” he said. “It’s very good for the hotel business.”

Fefferman agreed. “After Grand Central and Penn Station, Jamaica is the third most important transportation hub in the New York metro area,” he said. “For example, the Hilton Garden feasibility is strong because you now have a hotel right at the transportation center that allows you to be at the terminals within 15 minutes. It’s more convenient in many ways than actually staying at any of the hotels near JFK itself.” According to GJDC, the area has seen an increase in subway and AirTrain ridership. In 2014, 6.5 million people rode the AirTrain to/from Jamaica Station, up 18% from the 5.5 million users in 2011.

Additionally, Downtown Jamaica is seeing other kinds of development as well. BRP Companies is building The Crossing, which will consist of 100,000 sq. ft. of retail and community facilities, and 580 units of mixed income affordable housing. It is expected to be complete by Q1 2018. Knight highlighted the importance of this. “Amenities such as shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues are crucial to attract hotel visitors to the area,” she said. 

All agreed that Jamaica would likely see international guests with a longer length of stay looking for a more affordable price than Manhattan hotels. “Citywide ADR averages were $295 in 2014,” said Rodgers. “Currently, here in Downtown Jamaica, they’re about $130.”

Rob MacKay, director of public relations, marketing & tourism, Queens Economic Development Corp., noted that Jamaica could be very much like Long Island City. “Their market is mostly long-term stay, and a lot of them are coming because [Long Island City is] only one subway stop from Manhattan but we are about $150 cheaper a night,” he said. “If you’re staying five or six nights, that’s a lot of money. Jamaica hotels will probably be a little bit cheaper than Long Island City.”

Libner also stressed the guest’s desire for authentic neighborhoods. “For international visitors who are here longer, they want to see more of the city, so they go to what they deem to be the way New Yorkers live,” she said. “On a second visit, they’re even more likely to do so. That growing interest in experiencing a destination the way locals [do]pushes visitors beyond Manhattan.”

MacKay stressed the importance of safety. “Jamaica is safer than it’s been in my lifetime.” Xu agreed, calling it a family neighborhood.

Knight pointed to the Jamaica Now Action Plan, which the city announced last April. It outlines 21 strategic actions for the revitalization and growth of Jamaica, by providing workforce training and small business support, initiating new mixed-use development anchored by affordable housing, and improving the livability of the neighborhood through investments in safety measures, green spaces and more. The actions, 16 of which will be launched and implemented in the next three years, represent approximately $153 million in current public funding.

“Many of the projects are going to support this hotel development,” said Knight. “Ones like the marketing and branding campaign are certainly going to support the hotel development effort; investment in infrastructure around the station area is going to help make improvements to the pedestrian experience and [make it]more friendly to visitors.”

“Part of the plan of the city calls for some streetscaping, landscaping, lighting and high security to make it very attractive,” agreed Fefferman. “That’s what the new Jamaica is all about.”

However, he noted that one of the area’s biggest hurdles is “getting people to recognize the old Jamaica to the new Jamaica,” he said. “That all comes with having the infrastructure and development in place. People have a perception of Jamaica, but that’s it’s easy to change that.”

“There is a tremendous amount of development activity happening in this community on a very large scale. It will be a compelling destination given its access to the airport and the transportation options,” concluded Knight. “I believe that Jamaica is a community in tremendous transition. It’s in the early cycle of revitalization, and a neighborhood rich in ethnic and economic diversity. HB