Gentrification is happening in Ridgewood

DSCN0276

The lot at 176 Woodward Avenue may become the site of another luxury development.

Another luxury residential development took a step closer toward approval when Community Board 5 threw its weight behind a plan to build a three-and-four-story, 88-unit apartment complex at 176 Woodward Ave.

If approved, the rezoning could allow for the third such development in the lower portion of the neighborhood within the last few years, signaling major changes for the area.

Ridgewood, a historical haven and a starting place for arriving immigrants, may be seeing a dramatic shift in its makeup and its look and feel in the near future.

The prospect of gentrification, which has played out countless times in other neighborhoods across New York City, has residents split over whether they should welcome the change or combat it.

“I’ve been waiting for 19 years for this development to happen,” said Joe Pergolese, of 18-73 Troutman St., in his testimony at the community board’s March meeting. “Times have changed. There are people who want to come in and do want to see this happen.”

Pergolese said that developments like the one planned on Woodward Avenue could make the neighborhood more pleasant for its residents.

The new building is to rise on a vacant lot that once housed industry. To build it, the developer needs a change in city land use rules, which currently permit only manufacturing on the site.

Daniel Russo, who has been living at 18-88 Starr St. for six years, said during the same meeting that the development, when completed, could serve as a deterrent to crime that takes place on his block, including drug dealing, loitering and prostitution.

Another long-time resident was cautious about embracing change so willingly, however.

“I’ve been in the neighborhood about 20 to 25 years, I’ve seen the neighborhood go through changes too,” said Manny Jalonschi at the meeting. “What I’m worried about is some of the community ties that are there might get a little ripped. I say we try to get some binding agreements about the price of this housing.”

Jalonschi expressed concerns about overcrowding in public schools and the significant difference in the incomes of the people who would eventually move into the neighborhood and the people who are already living there. The income disparity could ultimately lead to the displacement of current residents because they either would not be able to afford to stay, or they would look like they do not belong, he said.

DSCN0293

PS 290 is nearing completion at 55-20 Metropolitan Avenue.

Two new schools are currently being built to deal with overcrowding that already exists. PS 290, nearing completion at 55-20 Metropolitan Avenue, will serve 616 pupils in grades Pre-K through 5, according to the developer’s website. PS 320, to be built at 360 Seneca Avenue, will provide 472 additional seats according to the School Construction Authority.

The Woodward Avenue development is not the first of its kind in recent years.

Another project at 482-484 Seneca Avenue, not far from the Woodward Avenue site, is in the planning stages. Based on the Department of Buildings documents, the plan calls for a 16-apartment building at the site of an old factory. It too, would require the city to approve changes in the land use rules.

DSCN0283

508 Seneca Avenue.

A high-end residential building is nearing completion, just across the street, at 508 Seneca Avenue. It comes outfitted with a gym and rooftop access.

The building at 508 is already being advertised on Craigslist, listing rent at $2,850 for three bedrooms. With a few exceptions, most three-bedroom rentals in Ridgewood currently cap off at $2,000 according to Zillow, an online real estate database.

In a community district where nearly 29 percent of the population received some form of income support in 2012, and where the median household income was estimated to be $53,913 in 2010 by the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census, a rent that high does not sit well with some residents.

Jalonschi, an activist, author and journalist, is the son of Romanian immigrants. He believes the kind of gentrification that comes with residential development can thwart economic opportunity for immigrant and low-income individuals and families.

“When housing costs are under a thousand for multi-room units–units you could maybe start a new family or continue an immigrant family in–the life faced by most working class folks is a precarious one, but one which, with a lot of sacrifices (sharing costs, multiple working adults) is a gritty sort of manageable,” he said in an e-mail.

Saying that when housing costs start to consume more than half of a family’s wages, disposable income is eliminated, diminishing the consumer base of local businesses, causing them to be priced out and destroying potential job opportunities, Jalonschi continued.

“Everyone’s sensing the rent-pressure and the disappearing local businesses around here,” he added. “They’re also noticing younger professionals moving in, paying market-jarring high rents for units that used to be at market or below-market prices.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A splinter of wood prompts lifelong inspiration

When Jorge Cajamarca was a sophomore at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, he tried to take a splinter out of his finger using a sewing needle, as he had seen his father do many times before. He was able to pull the splinter out, but the following day his finger was hot, swollen and in pain. Nevertheless he decided to go to school, but upon returning home, he consulted his father who discovered that his son had a potentially deadly infection running up his left arm.

Because of the teeny splinter, Cajamarca, a resident of Ridgewood, now aspires to become a doctor and wants to be able to help others.

“It all began with that splinter in my left index finger when I was in high school,” said Cajamarca. “Next thing you know, I’m at the hospital with a life-threatening infection.”

Cajamarca said that when he was admitted to Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, the doctors there didn’t know what to do. After about a week he was transferred to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan with a risk of having one of his fingers amputated.

At Bellevue, a sharp-looking Puerto Rican doctor operated and saved Cajamarca’s finger.

“I think it was really that doctor who inspired me to pursue a career in medicine and science,” said Cajamarca.

Cajamarca also credits his father as an important inspiration. His father was a doctor in Ecuador, but because his credentials had no value in the United States he became a construction worker.

Cajamarca works hard at his passion. He earned a master’s degree in biotechnology from Hunter College last spring after previously completing a double major in biology and chemistry as an undergraduate. In addition to his part-time jobs in retail and as a cabbie, he works as an assistant at Dr. David A. Foster’s and Dr. Nancy L. Greenbaum’s lab at Hunter College and interns at a gastroenterology clinic in Corona, Queens.

He is seeking entrance to medical school. His brother is currently working on a Doctorate of Medicine and of Philosophy, a dual doctoral degree for physician-scientists, at Cornell University.

“We have always engaged in a sort of brotherly competition,” said Cajamarca. “We are always trying to outwork one another, and because we are practically working in the same field of study, it’s almost natural that we would compete. I think an advantage that my brother had though was that he attended mostly private institutions while I attended public schools all the way through.”

Although he admits that the career path he has chosen can be difficult and time-consuming, Cajamarca said he had not had difficulty staying motivated and passionate about what he does since his encounter with the doctor at Bellevue Hospital who operated on his finger.

He also stressed the importance of having an open mind.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” said Cajamarca. “It’s definitely important to experiment and find something you love to do.”

Cajamarca said that some people pursue certain professions because they want money. He believes that if money is their only motivation and they have no passion, achieving goals is lot more difficult if not impossible.

Ever since the doctor at Bellevue Hospital saved his finger, Cajamarca has been motivated to be able to help people in a similar way.

“I’m not in it for a reward,” said Cajamarca. “I want to help people the way that doctor helped me when I thought I was going to lose my finger. Being able to do that would be the best reward.”

Woodward rezoning sparks debate

Ariel Aufgang, the project’s architect, addresses the audience.

Ariel Aufgang, the project’s architect, addressed the audience.

The March meeting of Community Board 5 erupted into a heated war of words over a city plan to permit row houses to be built in a portion of lower Ridgewood that has been restricted to industry.

The proposed plan would change the zoning of a portion of lower Ridgewood bordered by Flushing Avenue, Starr Street, Woodward Avenue and Onderdonk Avenue.

“Ridgewood deserves a modified proposal with binding commitments from the developer that mitigate actual impact and are responsive to Ridgewood’s needs,” said Bridgette Blood, an opponent of the change.

Blood, a 10-year resident of neighboring Bushwick, expressed concern regarding a luxury development in Ridgewood after witnessing the impact of similar projects on her neighborhood.

Steve Sinacori, a lawyer for Frank Curtin, the owner of the lot at 176 Woodward Ave., assured the audience that the benefits of the development outweigh any drawbacks. “It’s taking an underutilized site, that’s surrounded by residential use, and allowing it to be cleaned up, beautified and provide housing,” he said.

Currently, the 45,000 square foot empty lot Curtin owns is used for storing construction equipment and materials. The streets surrounding the lot, especially Starr Street, have had significant problems with garbage dumping and crime.

Photo: Aufgang Architects

The completed project would consist of three- and four-story sections, and would include 88 apartments, 118 car parking spaces, stores, about 1,000 to 1,500 square feet of open community space and a possible green roof and dog walk.

Ariel Aufgang, the project’s architect, said the rent would remain affordable. Prices would range “anywhere from $1,000 to $1,200 for a studio, $1,400 to $1,600 for a one-bedroom and $1,700 to $2,000 for a two-bedroom,” he said.

One lifelong Ridgewood resident supported Aufgang’s claims of affordability.

“Two bedrooms at $1,400 and three bedrooms at $2,000: If those are not affordable for this neighborhood, I don’t know what is,” said Craig Montalbano, of 584 Seneca Ave., “because you cannot find a two-bedroom for $1,400 anywhere in lower Ridgewood.”

Affordability however, was not the only concern of the project’s opponents.

“I agree the current land zoning is not perfect the way it is,” said Neil Myers, a member of Ridgewood Social, an online resource listing events and classified ads in the neighborhood, “but I think residential rezoning may not be beneficial to the neighborhood as a whole.”

He predicted a snowball effect. “You can’t have a luxury building on the edge of Flushing where all the manufacturing is. It’s going to upset that and it’s going to topple the industry there,” he added.

“We do think something needs to happen there, but we don’t think the building they want fits with Ridgewood’s needs,” said Sarah Feldman, a Ridgewood Social member, in an e-mail.

But for each opponent of the plan there was a proponent.

“It promises safety,” said Kweighbaye Kotee, CEO and Director of Programming at the Bushwick Film Festival. “I live on Starr Street and a lot of prostitution happens there and it’s kind of scary for a woman to walk up and down the street, especially at night.”

Kotee, a filmmaker, stressed the importance of the proposed open community space, which could be beneficial to artists like herself, as well as the promise of stores on Woodward Avenue which she called “dead” in terms of business.

The chairman of the Zoning and Land Use Review Committee, Walter Sanchez, said the committee will hold a meeting on April 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the board office and come back with a recommendation.

Chairperson Vincent Arcuri, Jr., said that the Zoning and Land Use Review Committee will most likely recommend approval of the zoning change.

Cypress Inn Cafe a local favorite

DSCN0109-20140221

Customers and staff at Cypress Inn Cafe.

As customers stroll in through the door of Vincent “Vinny” Signorelli’s recently opened Cypress Inn Cafe on the corner of Cypress Avenue and Stanhope Street, the owner’s terrier Buster dances around and wags his tail in greeting. High on the wall behind the counter hangs an enlarged photograph of Angelina and Charles, Signorelli’s parents. A classic cash register sits on the counter and a vintage wall telephone hangs in the background, as mid-20th century music plays through the speakers.

The cafe’s vintage family theme stems from “good memories as a kid,” said Signorelli. “Every Friday night people would get together, play cards and have a good time.”

DSCN0105-20140221

Vincent “Vinny” Signorelli.

Signorellia Ridgewood native and lifetime resident, who also owns a tattoo parlor and a skate shop in Ridgewoodsaid his aim in opening Cypress Inn Cafe, is to revitalize the neighborhood spirit of old. He wants to bring back what he remembers of the neighborhood from his days as a kid growing up.

“This neighborhood used to be full of kid-friendly candy shops and bakeries,” said Signorelli. “I remember running out for a pack of cigarettes for my father when I was 10 years old and they would sell it to me because they knew it was for my father.”

Signorelli spoke about sit-down Chinese restaurants, corner bars and cafes like his own and the former movie theater on Myrtle Avenue. Chow mein on a bun and English muffin pizzas at neighborhood bazaars were staple foods, characteristic of the neighborhood in the old days.

DSCN0102-20140221

Angelina and Charles Signorelli.

When asked about the photograph of his parents hanging on the wall, he said his parents always encouraged him to pursue what he loves. “When I was around 13 years old, my father bought me a drum set,” said Signorelli. “I started playing and the first floor neighbors couldn’t stand it. I kept on playing and they moved out.” Later Signorelli played drums with a number of bands.

As Signorelli was talking about his father, his mother Angelina entered the cafe.

“Have you met Miss Angie yet?” asked Kandia Akili-Mudu, a regular. “She’s the sweetest.”

Indeed, the neighborly conversation between Angelina Signorelli and the friends and staff of the cafe and the hospitable approach toward customers sitting inside serve as evidence that she is an indispensable part of the character of Cypress Inn Cafe that keeps customers coming back.

“She comes in here often and sometimes prepares food for customers,” said Signorelli. “Those English muffin pizzas are so good because my mother prepares the sauce at home.”

Customers appreciate the authenticity and the easygoing demeanor of Signorelli and his staff.

“It’s quaint,” said Jose Arias, a customer. “It’s the perfect space between work and home. I think this atmosphere is really an extension of the owner.”

Akili-Mudu added that anyone who visits the cafe could easily become attached. “It’s like Vinny is in his house serving friends,” she said.

To Signorelli it all comes down to how you treat people.

“Life is already hard for many,” said Signorelli. “Why make it more difficult?”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.