After nearly five years of construction, a new building is offering affordable apartment units and health care resources for a New York City community.
The Tree of Life Center – with 174 units, community and retail space, and a full-service health center and dental clinic – opened on Dec. 9 in Jamaica, Queens.
The center is home to Cornell University Cooperative Extension – New York City’s (CUCE-NYC) Brooklyn/Queens office, delivering educational programs on health, nutrition and social well-being to residents and community members.
Representatives from CUCE-NYC joined community members, lawmakers and members of the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica for the ribbon-cutting. Beforehand, they spoke to an assembled group inside the church sanctuary on 164th Street to celebrate the opening.
The Tree of Life Center (TOLC) was “inspired by what the community told us they needed,” said Rev. Patrick O’Connor, lead pastor at First Presbyterian Church. He chairs the First Jamaica Community and Urban Development Corporation (FJCUDC), which surveyed more than 1,200 Jamaica residents to identify the community’s most pressing needs. They highlighted affordable housing, health and nutrition.
O’Connor then brought together CUCE-NYC and Community Health Network (CHN) along with the church to create the Tree of Life Center Partnership to address those priorities.
Affordable housing space was especially needed. FJCUDC and the Bluestone Organization, a Queens-based real estate development firm, worked together to build the center. CHN’s Jamaica Health Center has relocated to the TOLC and provides care to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay.
CUCE-NYC’s nutrition and health program leader, Carol Parker, is looking forward to strengthening the partnership with CHN to provide more community members with preventive care through a referral process.
“We are starting from the ground up …we are seeing that relationship as something that could become a model,” Parker said.
More than 26,000 people submitted applications for the Tree of Life Center apartments. The building includes a mix of layouts, ranging from studios to three-bedroom units. Since the pandemic, New York City has seen the highest increases in rent and housing costs of any metro area in the country.
“We all know too well that prior to the pandemic, we were dealing with a crisis. This crisis has only been exacerbated by the pandemic – housing, all the things around health care,” said Donovan Richards, Queens borough president. “There is a reason Queens was one the hardest hit communities across the city and that’s partially because of historic disinvestments in communities like Jamaica.”
The center’s opening is an important milestone for the entire Queens community, showing how fruitful collaborations between residents, lawmakers and community organizations like CUCE-NYC can be.
“You’ve created a way in which people can relate to each other, have services and form the kind of community where people have better outcomes in our city,” Donovan said. “If it can be done here, then sure enough it can be done throughout our entire city.”
Natalia Rommen is a communications specialist for Cornell University Cooperative Extension – New York City.