a new west side debate: housing or cars? News

| 28 Jun 2016 | 11:34

This story has been corrected to reflect that a Community Board 7 committee has not yet voted on an affordable housing project proposed for West 108th Street.

A plan to expand affordable housing on 149 West 108th Street has been met with complaints from the community, who claim that the area already has enough affordable housing and that the building violates zoning laws.

The proposal by West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing includes 193 units, and would reach a height of 11 stories, despite a zoning law that restricts building height to seven stories. The plans involve demolishing Valley Lodge, the supportive housing unit WSFSSH already manages at that property, and the destruction of three garages with 675 parking spaces.

Save Manhattan Valley, a coalition formed to protest the plans, have listed several concerns about the project, including the zoning issue, the destruction of the parking garages, and the concern that the noise and possible hazards from construction could be disruptive or harmful to the nearby school, Booker T. Washington Middle School.

Glory Ann Kerstein, a founding member of Save Manhattan Valley, said the parking spaces are used by St. Luke's Hospital Workers, the Central Park Medical team, and Columbia University staff and visitors.

“This was done without the community,” said Kerstein.

In an email, she added, “As such, the city of New York and WSFSSH remain unaware of the consequences for the community. Talk with us. Collaborate with us. The community board strives to provide a forum for public input but that cannot substitute for true negotiations with HPD and WSFSSH at a sit down meeting.”

According to Paul Freitag, executive director of WSFSSH, his team has been meeting with different community groups for a couple years, with the most recent push coming last fall.

“We've met with (Save Manhattan Valley) three times in a series of private meetings, in addition to community board meetings.” said Freitag, “All of the three meetings we've had so far have been about information, no action has been taken.”

Meryl Zegarek, also a founder of Save Manhattan Valley, described the community as generally accepting. “It's greatly upsetting when people refer to the issue as affordable housing vs. people,” she said.

In a subsequent email, Zegarek said, “This is poorly planned development vs. people. A lot of older people use those parking spaces. We've walked around and talked to a lot of shop owners who need their cars, a lot of the workers at St. Luke's work odd hours and need a car.”

Their other chief concern is the building's height, which Kerstein said would tower over other buildings in the area and could raise heating bills for buildings caught in the new building's shadow.

“Imagine 11 stories, you're not going to be able to see the sun over there,” she said.

Zegarek and Kerstein said that many of the people who use the parking garages need their cars, and the destruction of the garages would take away from one community to give to another. “I just can't imagine what the city was thinking.” Kerstein said, “They're going to vaporize parking for 800 people. Is that good planning? Not for our community use.”

The number of parking spaces that will be destroyed seems to be a source of contention. Save Manhattan Valley says that 800 spaces will be destroyed, while WSFSSH says the number is 675.

The current senior shelter at Valley Lodge has about 92 beds. WSFSSH wants to expand that to 110 beds, in addition to 193 additional units of affordable housing. This would be accomplished in part by the 11-story building, which was met favorably by the committee despite the fact that the building violating existing zoning laws, which Freitag said was because of the “overwhelming need for supportive housing.” An official vote has not taken place however.

Community Board 7 also requested in an open letter to WSFSSH that they “incorporate sufficient data and analysis on how such loss of parking would impact the immediate neighborhood.” WSFSSH did prepare an initial parking study, but the board deemed it inadequate, calling the scope of the study “narrow,” and citing an “obvious absence of any statistics as to the number of available (i.e. unrented) spaces in the neighborhood.” The board's letter also raised questions about environmental impact, the fair share of distribution of social services (Manhattan Valley is home to roughly 50 percent of Manhattans affordable housing already), and environmental impact, echoing the concerns of Save Manhattan Valley.

Freitag said that WSFSSH is not opposed to putting parking underneath the new building, but he noted that the underlying bedrock is quite high, which would result in a costly excavation. In response to the complaint that the Central Park Medical team will not have a place to park, WSFSSH has modified its design to allow three Central Park ambulances to be stored in the building.

“Were somebody to generate a viable proposal for putting parking in the building, we would be open to that,” said Freitag.

As for the issue of construction within close proximity to a school, Freitag said the construction would be in compliance with Bill 420, a still-unpassed bill proposed by District 7 Councilman Mark Levine that requires construction be kept at least 75 feet away from a school.

“I think the two issues that are often raised are environmental contamination and noise. We would work with our consultants to make sure everything was state of the art to make sure there was no spreading of anything that could in any way be harmful to the school,” he said.

Freitag also said they would be willing to accommodate and work with the school to figure out what hours would work best, such as avoiding construction during testing hours.