public debates, private schools News

| 23 Mar 2015 | 01:17

An affordable housing deal worked out with Collegiate School last year appears to have changed dramatically, throwing discussions around the plan into disarray and potentially jeopardizing the private school’s plans for a new building.

The K-12 boys’ school is seeking to build a new facility at Riverside South, the 56-acre apartment complex along the Hudson River between 59th Street and 72nd Street. Under the terms of a previous land use deal, 12 percent of all residential building units at Riverside South had to be set aside for affordable housing. Collegiate’s proposal was to fulfill that requirement by building the remaining 55 units of affordable housing at Riverside Center that had not yet been built.

As a backup in the event the affordable housing on Riverside Center couldn’t be found, according to Community Board 7’s housing committee co-chair Nick Prigo, Collegiate would purchase 55 market rate units at nearby Riverside South and convert them to affordable housing. The board, said Prigo, agreed to this.

But the board and elected officials learned recently that both the initial plan and the backup plan have fizzled. After a year of searching, Collegiate said it was unable to find space for the affordable housing on Riverside Center, and it’s not financially feasible to buy market rate units at Riverside South and convert them to affordable.

Yet Collegiate still wants to move forward with its new school. To make that deal happen, it has offered to pay the city $50 million to build affordable units elsewhere in the district. City Planning has proposed building them on city-owned land on West 108th Street, a plan that Community Board 7 and elected officials called premature at a recent land use committee meeting.

City Planning was scheduled to vote on Collegiate’s $50 million offer on March 16, but elected officials succeeded in getting the agency to push the vote back to March 30 in order to better understand what’s going on: There’s the question of whether the school is legally bound to build 55 units of affordable housing at Riverside South or Riverside Center, as well as confusion over whether affordable housing requirements at those two sites are tied together in some way.

Officials from City Planning and the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development couldn’t clear up that confusion at a recent CB7 land use committee meeting. This led the community board and elected officials to again request from City Planning that they delay their vote on Collegiate’s $50 million offer until everything is settled. City Planning, however, indicated in a statement that they’re going ahead with the March 30 vote.

“There was some kind of mistake or misunderstanding, and now the truth is revealed,” said Audrey Isaacs, a CB7 housing committee member. “Where do we have to go from here? Is there any possibility that Collegiate could get away with not building the 55 affordable units?”

Prigo said CB7’s first priority is getting the 55 affordable units they were promised by Collegiate. Secondary to that, the board prefers that the units be built at Riverside South or in the vicinity. As for Collegiate’s $50 million offer, Prigo told the Spirit, “I’d say we are open to the mechanism of handing money over to the city to alleviate Collegiate’s requirement to build onsite units. But we are only open to it if strong safeguards are in place to ensure that at least 55 units eventually get built.”

According to HPD’s Assistant Commissioner for Special Needs Housing Jessica Katz, who was at the land use committee meeting, Collegiate’s $50 million would be safeguarded by the department for use in constructing affordable housing somewhere in the district.

As for the West 108th Street site the city is proposing to build the affordable units on, the board is concerned that doing so will exacerbate the district’s economic segregation problem, to say nothing of the fact that such a proposal will need to go through a public review process and is at present the land is in need of environmental remediation.

According to Katz, $50 million will be more than enough to build 55 units of affordable housing, especially in some areas of the Upper West Side. Katz said the average cost of building an affordable unit in New York is $400,000.

But building the affordable units at or in the vicinity of Riverside South - and thereby creating more economic diversity in a ritzier part of the neighborhood - is precisely the point, said residents, board members and elected officials.

“This community cares deeply about integrating economically,” said Upper West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who is joined in her support of building the affordable housing at Riverside South by other elected officials, including State Senator Adriano Espaillat, Congressman Jerrold Nadler and State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal.

Councilmember Rosenthal said changes in the Collegiate deal and confusion over affordable housing requirements at Riverside South and Riverside Center caused dismay among residents and the community board, who thought they secured an affordable housing win for the Upper West Side back in 2010.

Meanwhile, Collegiate said it’s running up against a hard deadline. According to George Fontas, a consultant for the school with Capalino and Company, if the vote doesn’t occur March 30, their partner in the Riverside South land deal can back out with no penalty. Collegiate, on the other hand, will incur a steep, eight-figure penalty if they remain in their current building for another year, according to Fontas.

“If a vote doesn’t happen on March 30, it puts Collegiate in a very, very tough position,” said Fontas. “We respect Community Board 7’s request for more time, but there is no more time.”