In the wake of the discovery that St. John’s University used semantics to bamboozle its neighbors - promising not to “build” off-campus student residences while contracting with a developer to do it for them - elected officials and residents of a quiet residential street in Jamaica Estates are steamed.
The fact that construction at the site, located at 172-14 Henley Road in Jamaica Estates, has been halted by a “Stop Work Order” issued by the Department of Buildings has done nothing to cool off tempers.
City Councilmembers Tony Avella and James Gennaro have held press conferences within days of each other to denounce the “loophole” that allows student dormitories to be considered “community facilities” and be much larger than comparable market-based housing. Gennaro has picketed the school along with a delegation of irate neighbors.
State Senator Frank Padavan is also pounding away at the school, staging his own protest outside the campus - within hours and yards of Gennaro’s, on a rain-soaked Saturday, October 27 - and with some of the same signs and demonstrators.
It isn’t surprising that Avella is outraged. Three years ago, he was the prime sponsor of a City Council resolution which changed the law covering community facilities and specifically included “student dormitories.”
The revised zoning text was proposed by the Department of City Planning (DCP), and reviewed by all 14 of Queens’ Community Boards (CB) before votes by the Zoning subcommittee, which Avella chairs, and the full Council.
Of the 14, 6 rejected the proposal outright and most of the others expressed strong reservations, though none of the objections were about dormitories as Kevin Forestall, a member of CB8, which covers the area around St. John’s, explained.
“All the time we were considering the zoning text change, [St. John’s was] saying their goal was 10 percent off-campus student housing, so we concerned ourselves with other details.”
According to figures provided by the college, of a total of 17,053 students, including graduate and undergraduate schools, 2,616 live in University housing. Of that number 311, or nearly 12 percent, are housed off-campus. The planned dormitory would more than double that number, to 796.
As a result of St. John’s actions in the Henley Road development, Forrestal’s opinion has completely soured. “They’re like a cancer, except they never die,” he said.
Documents furnished by DCP confirm that the overwhelming concerns expressed by the various boards related to houses of worship and medical facilities in residential neighborhoods.
Avella said that the change was “the best we could do to get DCP, the City Council and the mayor on the same page.” He said that he hoped to institute “Phase Two” to deal with the “dormitory loophole.” When asked how he felt about the six-story building which will house 485 students on a street of single family homes, Avella said, “I’m disgusted.”
Gennaro pointed out that the developer at the Henley Road site had filed plans to build an apartment building which conformed to the R-5 residential zoning. “When the option to build a college dorm under the community facility designation was made available, the developers quickly abandoned their plans in favor of the bonus,” he said.
Padavan has focused on the nature of dormitory residents and not the zoning, which is purely a city matter. “You are going to have 485 college kids on a quiet residential block, doing what college kids do,” he said.
According to Padavan, St. John’s own disciplinary records show that over the last three years, “there have been 735 liquor-law violations, 106 drug-law violations, 84 burglaries, four forcible sex offenses and one arson” on the campus.
“If you can’t control these activities on your campus, how are you going to control them off campus, a quarter-mile away?” Padavan queried, in a letter to St. John’s president, Rev. Donald Harrington.