Sutphin Boulevard: The Next Tourist Hot Spot?

Crossing at Jamaica Center

A rendering of the Crossing at Jamaica Center, a proposed 680,000-square-foot mixed-use development expected to break ground later this year. (Greater Jamaica Development Corporation)

Flushing Meadows Park. Kaufman-Astoria Studios. Citi Field, the home of the Mets. These are all Queens landmarks on many tourists must-see lists. But Sutphin Boulevard?

If the plans of a group of local officials and real estate agents play out, it soon will be. At least 150 people packed the main room at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center in Queens on Wednesday, all anxious to realize the vision that prompted Lonely Planet to name Queens its top U.S. destination for 2015.

While most people outside of New York City know Queens by the neighborhoods of Astoria, Jackson Heights, and Flushing, Jamaica is not as well known nor is it a destination hotspot for out-of-state travelers. Jamaica business interests want to change that.

And that’s why real estate brokers mingled with commercial real estate developers and Queens officials on Wednesday at the “Jamaica Revealed” event at the Performing Arts Center. The theme: to tout a planned redevelopment of the 1-mile trade area surrounding Sutphin Boulevard. The area, flanked by Sutphin and Jamaica Avenue, is dominated by fast-food restaurants and 99-cent stores.

“If we want to help this neighborhood continue to grow and take advantage of all the assets, it serves us to diversity our retail and to try to attract more restaurants,” said Rhonda Binda, the executive director of Jamaica’s Business Improvement District, who grew up in Jamaica and also now lives in the neighborhood.

Binda acknowledged Wednesday that other areas of Queens and New York City have “been more competitive.” That’s the reason, she said, it’s important for the neighborhood to start catering to its own residents so they don’t go and spend their money elsewhere.

At the moment, the neighborhood boasts a 15-screen Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas a block from a subway line and a mall lined with second-hand stores selling street clothes, cellphone accessories, and knockoff shoes.

But the area is also a transportation hub, with the J, Z, and E subway lines converging at two stops: Jamaica Center/Parsons and Sutphin Boulevard/Archer Avenue. It is also a gateway to the John F. Kennedy International Airport with the Airtran at the Sutphin subway spot.

“There’s a lot going on here,” said Bradley Diamond, a managing director with Lee & Associates NYC, a full service commercial real estate brokerage firm that hopes to attract more national chains to the area. Diamond participated in the event with two other colleagues.

“We’re definitely excited about Jamaica,” Diamond said. “Between the two hotel projects and the big apartment building that they’re doing, I think that people are going to need to eat and that is a better argument, a pro argument for restaurants to come in.

“Also what I learned from today is that they want to make this a tourist destination spot as well and tourists certainly are going to want to eat at restaurants and eat at something other than fast food.”

Jamaica may be the latest neighborhood that will burnish the borough’s hip image, as explained by Lonely Planet. The travel experts, who publish city and country guidebooks for all types of travelers and trips, picked Queens because they said New York’s largest borough is “quickly becoming its hippest,” but lamented that “most travelers haven’t clued in… yet.” Lonely Planet also cited Queens because “nowhere is the image of New York as the global melting pot truer than Queens.”

Stroll down Sutphin or Jamaica and it’s a meld of Chinese take-out, Indian groceries, and African hair braiding spots.

But new developments announced to take place in the coming months could alter the feel and look of the neighborhood.

Groundbreaking for a Hilton Garden Inn to be built on the corner of Sutphin Boulevard and 94th Avenue, directly across from the Airtran/LIRR station, is set to begin later this year. The 26-story hotel will have 240 rooms.

BRP Companies, a real estate investment and development firm, will also build a mixed-use residential and retail complex at the corner of Sutphin Boulevard and Archer Avenue. It will include 100,000 square feet of retail and community facilities, 580 residential units of which it has said 100 will be reserved for affordable housing, and 300 underground parking spaces.

Lee & Associates NYC hopes to use that as leverage to entice national restaurant chains like California Pizza Kitchen, the Cheesecake Factory, Grand Lux Café, Olive Garden, and T.G.I. Friday’s among others.

“It’s a great shopping district and I think there’s a great potential for other type of shopping,” Diamond said. “There’s room for more. If you’ve got a developer like BRP coming into the area, you know, those guys aren’t stupid. They may be a little ahead of the curve. So we’d like to see a restaurant that would believe in the area as well.”

The event began with an address from Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and included a keynote from developer Drew Greenwald. It proved largely positive as people networked and asked questions of a panel of developers.

The event also took participants on bus tours of the area, during which guides pointed out certain vacant and soon-to-be vacant sites that are slated for redevelopment. Diamond pointed out that the current site of a Capital One Bank, on Jamaica Avenue and 162 Street, would be ideal for a Cheesecake Factory because of its large size.

A majority of area residents, workers, and shoppers have said they want more restaurants in the area, according to a survey the Business Improvement District conducted. The survey found that 82 percent want more restaurants, 73 percent want more retail businesses, and 64 percent would like more recreation and entertainment.

“There’s a lot of room for all kinds of growth, on every level of income, at every price point,” Binda said.

The median income in the immediate area is about $55,000, according to 2012 figures from the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation. However, at least 35 percent of Queens residents also receive some kind of government assistance.

But the business district’s executive cautioned critics who would dismiss the area as low-income or working-class.

“I think it’s somewhat of a myth that people think that just because it’s this kind of a community that we don’t want certain amenities,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t like it. We’ll go to Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island to get it. And we may be willing to pay a premium if it was offered and that’s what I think the developers have finally realized.”