CNU CITY SPOTLIGHT: Richmond Hill, Queens

This post is part of a new series on the CNU Salons, CITY SPOTLIGHT. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.

The below post is a City Spotlight on the Richmond Hill neighborhood in Queens, NYC, and comes courtesy of longtime CNU member and associate professor at Touro Law Center, Mike Lewyn.  See Lewyn's previous CITY SPOTLIGHT post on Jackson Heights here.   

Richmond Hill  is a lower-middle class neighborhood in central  Queens , with large Guyanese and Indo-Pakistani (as well as Anglo) populations. Most of it was built in the 1920s; its commercial blocks are low-rise and dominated by small-scale retail.  Like most older  Queens  neighborhoods, it is basically pedestrian-friendly, with lots of buidings that front the street rather than being surrounded by parking. The   New York   subway runs through the neighborhood’s edges; both Jamaica Avenue (the neighborhood’s northernmost commercial street) and Liberty Avenue (at the neighborhood’s southern edge)have subway stops. 

Residential blocks are dominated by one- and two-family homes, but with some small apartment buildings as well.  Unlike in more built-up areas, multifamily housing seems to have generally been built on residential blocks rather than commercial blocks.  Nevertheless, the neighborhood's density (a little over 24,000 people per square mile) is higher than the Queens average, and higher than the citywide average for any U.S. city.

In August, the city of New York  rezoned 229 blocks of Richmond Hill (and its demographically similar neighbor Woodhaven).  Before the rezoning, many residential blocks were zoned for both single and multifamily housing, and developers occasionally bulldozed single- and two-family homes to build additional multifamily housing.  But after the rezoning, most of those blocks are zoned only for one- and two-family houses, thus excluding additional small apartment buildings.

According to some press accounts, the rezoning pitted homeowners (who favored downzoning) against business owners (who favored more construction).  Said one business owner quoted in the Queens Tribune, “We bought property for five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred thousand…Based on the zoning, that property is worth less … Look at Flushing, look at Jackson Heights [two other Queens neighborhoods] those communities can build upward. We cannot go upward.”  The rezoning did include additional density on some commercial blocks- but evidently not enough to gain complete support from business owners and developers. 

From an urbanist perspective, downzoning in New York City doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea; less housing means higher housing prices in an already-expensive market, and less density means fewer people living within walking distance of transit and fewer people living in city neighborhoods.

One argument for the rezoning was that infrastructure, parking and school systems could not support multifamily housing.  But if urban infrastructure can support the high-rise districts of the Upper East and Upper West Sides, it can support three- and four-story apartment buildings.

On the other hand, the rezoning does allow housing on some major streets previously zoned for commercial use; this part of the rezoning attracted little publicity, and appears to have been less controversial than the downzoning.  It is unclear whether additional housing on commercial streets will make up for the possible housing lost due to downzoning. 

The city’s description of the rezoning can be found at



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