By Joy Bergmann
Community groups are circling their wagons in preparation for a potentially contentious fight over the proposed construction of 304 units of affordable housing for seniors and families at 149 West 108th Street (between Amsterdam and Columbus), a site currently home to two city-owned parking garages and a senior housing facility, Valley Lodge.
Plans have evolved since WSR reported on the project back in March and June. A lengthy public process is set to start in the late spring, and the city and nonprofit that aim to build the housing are already getting their plans ready.
While the garages are owned by the city, the project is being run by the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing (WSFSSH), a local nonprofit that manages housing for seniors, the disabled and low-income people. The WSFSSH owns the Valley Lodge senior residence that would also be demolished for the new project. The City requires a seven-month review process, called ULURP, because city-owned property will be conveyed to WSFSSH and because the proposed building would reach 11 stories at its highest point, higher than the local zoning regulations would normally allow. The earliest that hard-hat work could begin would be late 2017, according to WSFSSH.
The current initiative is to create one building that would become home to approximately 400 people, mostly seniors. The project requires demolition of the two parking garages on either side of Valley Lodge.
According to the project’s parking study, at least 550 off-street parking spaces will disappear with the two budget-rate garages. The vast majority of spaces are kept by monthly subscribers from the 10025 and 10024 zip codes who pay about $365/month. The average parking rate in the area is $470/month.
A previously discussed idea to demolish a third garage on the block and construct a second building will not be pursued for at least five years, according to WSFSSH Executive Director, Paul Freitag.
Freitag says that local support for the project has been growing steadily since the group first presented it to Community Board 7’s Land Use Committee in December 2015. “More than 16 community organizations have come out publicly in favor,” he says. “We’ve been building affordable housing for 40 years, and doing so in ways that the community appreciates.”
Not everyone appreciates doing so on this particular block.
“It’s a really bad choice of location,” says attorney Michael Hiller who represents the opposition activist group Save Manhattan Valley (SMV), which he says has had over 1,700 people sign its petition against the plan. Hiller previously led the successful effort to stop developers from converting First Church of Christ, Scientist into condos.
For months, Save Manhattan Valley co-founder Meryl Zegarek says, the debate has been wrongly framed as people versus parking. “What has been overlooked and not reported are the severe, adverse environmental impacts threatened by this project.”
SMV commissioned its own impact study (expected to be released soon) and says the properties at issue are contaminated with asbestos, lead and other chemicals. They say construction dust would release ambient particulates endangering residents, especially students attending Booker T. Washington Middle School (MS 54) across the street.
Freitag says proponents are conducting their own environmental study as part of ULURP and will release its findings in the spring. In any case, “We will make sure demolition and construction are done in a safe manner. Hazardous materials can be contained and not endanger the community. Such materials are contained all the time.”
Zegarek says their firm’s study also found “severe shadow impacts” across MS 54’s play spaces and the Anabil Aviles Playground just east of the proposed building.
WSFSSH’s shadow study refutes this, says Freitag.“We’re building on the north side of the block…and will not cast any shadows on [MS 54’s] ball fields on the south side of West 108th.” As for the Avilas playground, the proposed building’s graduated architecture – it steps down to six stories – means that any forthcoming shadows would be similar to the ones currently cast by the garage.
Though SMV says preservation of parking isn’t their primary issue, they say elimination of at least 550 spaces will have an adverse impact on the neighborhood. Zegarek says locals should expect increased traffic congestion, emissions and crashes as frustrated motorists endlessly circle the blocks seeking spots.
Councilman Mark Levine shares that concern. “While I support the goal of expanding affordable housing in the neighborhood, I’m not yet ready to support this plan until we better understand how an additional 500 cars on the street will be addressed.”
Opponents have also asked: Couldn’t these units be built on one of the city’s 3000+ underutilized properties [according to this 2014 survey by the Municipal Arts Society] instead of this block?
“New York City is in desperate need of affordable housing and we are using each and every one of our assets to deliver,” says Juliet Pierre-Antoine, an HPD spokesperson. “Construction and land costs make affordable housing development more challenging than ever. As a result our public land is a precious resource as we work tirelessly to build much-needed affordable housing opportunities for all New Yorkers.”
In fact, there isn’t quite so much city-owned property available for building. The MAS study seems to indicate only four sites in CB7: the 108th St. garages at issue, an occupied building at 165 West 80th, an occupied building at 107 West 105th and 266 West 96th, which is reportedly already being targeted for development.
WSR asked SMV if they could point to a specific, equivalent, available location – meaning, close to public transit, offering nearby retail like groceries and pharmacies as well as having an adequate, residential-appropriate footprint. We haven’t heard back.
Some elected officials have already endorsed the project.
“While too many are looking for silver bullets and shortcuts, or saying ‘it can’t be done’ when it comes to our need for affordable and senior housing, it’s organizations like WSFSSH that are in the trenches doing amazing work,” says Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “This proposal for a 100-percent affordable housing development is what I want to see more of, not just on the West side, but across all of Manhattan.”
Times columnist Ginia Bellafante also weighed in, questioning whether the concerns raised by opponents should stall a project that could ease the housing crisis.
“During a housing crisis so acute — the number of people arriving in homeless shelters each night now exceeds 60,000 — there comes a time to ask when some democracy is arguably too much, when need and inconvenience can no longer be weighed equally.”
SMV’s attorney promises to be watching the city’s every move.
“When the ULURP process begins, we will make sure the City complies with all its requirements. If the City commits procedural errors or substantive errors of law, we will institute legal action on behalf of Manhattan Valley residents,” says Hiller. “We would prefer to get in a room with WSFSSH and the City and find an alternative solution. We are hoping the city changes its perspective on this so we don’t have to sue.”