By Zachary Folk
A proposed development on 96th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue that is expected to have 68 units of affordable housing won approval from members of two Community Board 7 committees on Wednesday night. The new development is set to rise on a lot currently occupied by an unused MTA electric substation and a shorter building housing nonprofits. Developer Fetner Properties previously described plans to make 80 of the 171 apartments into micro-units, which range from 290 to 340 square feet, and market them to seniors.
The land use and housing committees of Community Board 7 voted 11-0 with one abstention to approve Fetner’s plans. The committee members were joined by Community Board Chair Mark Diller, as well as representatives from the offices of Helen Rosenthal, Borough President Gale Brewer, Congressman Jerry Nadler.
Before the board voted to approve the proposal, Fetner tried to address the concerns of the community, as well as respond to the feedback from the board in October. Several residents and community board members brought up the previous use of the city-owned site on the block — a former MTA power station.
“I live next door, and we have been very aware of the toxicity of that site for a really long time,” said Upper West Side resident Jane Thompson. “We’re really puzzled that you’re entering into building without having any idea how toxic the site is.”
Because of the risk of hazardous materials on the site, the property was entered into the brownfield cleanup program, which is jointly run by the New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health.
“The owner and developer will be obligated to thoroughly investigate and remediate this site,” said Mimi Raygorodetsky, the leader of Langan Engineering’s environmental engineering practice. “Once any findings are realized, the owner and developer would be responsible to remediate the site so that it is safe and protective of both human health and the environment.” Upper West Side residents will be able to monitor progress on the evaluation and cleanup in real time by going to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website.
The company also addressed the board members’ concerns about the new project appealing to lower income residents and seniors in the neighborhood. “I see the city giving both the public site and public subsidies to this project, and I just want to make sure we’re getting something back for all the public resources that are going into it,” said Melissa Rosenberg, the housing committee’s co-chair. “I really do hope that you guys will continue to look for lower levels of affordability.”
One thing the company plans to do is make amenities free. Originally, Fetner planned to charge a fee for access to the new building’s common spaces like the gym. But after getting feedback from the community board last month, the company reevaluated this policy. “We have talked to HPD, and Fetner made the decision for all the units – not just the compact units – but all the moderate affordable units in this building will get access to the health club and everything free of charge,” Hal Fetner said.
One local who has studied micro-units said in a recent interview that amenities could help appeal to seniors who would otherwise be wary of living in a small unit. According to Rebecca Disbrow, a Vice President at Greenworks Lending and an Upper West Side resident who holds a master’s degree in city planning from MIT, adequate common space is vital for developing senior living communities in micro-unit housing.
“If you compare this to what a nursing facility or a retirement community would be, seniors would typically have smaller units but many shared spaces and other amenities,” Disbrow explained. Her 2013 thesis examined the economic feasibility of micro-unit apartments in New York City. “Micro-units are a viable idea for seniors so long as the common spaces balance the unit size – if they have somewhere to entertain, if they have somewhere to have family or have kids come visit, if they get access to more than they would otherwise have in a traditional unit. If a senior is going to be in a 500 square foot unit standalone unit or a 350 square foot micro-unit but with access to tons of common space, amenities, and other people their age, it could be a good trade-off – particularly if it’s at a lower price point because of the size.”
After the public hearing, the combined committees voted in favor of Fetner’s proposal with a few recommendations. “Fetner Properties looks forward to partnering with this community, and there was nothing in the recommendations that we find problematic that we can’t work with them and continue a longstanding relationship with,” the developer said after the vote.
Fetner’s proposal will next go before the full community board on December 3. The board will meet at Fordham University at 113 W 60th Street for the vote, after which the proposal will go to the Manhattan Borough President’s office.