Our story last month about a luxury development planned on Avenue D touched off an interesting debate among some of our readers about affordable housing. That debate continued during Community Board 3’s full board meeting last week. As you may recall, CB3’s land use committee had voted 9-4 to approve the sale of a city-owned parcel to a private developer. The developer, whose name was not disclosed, intends to build on the corner of Houston and Avenue D. There would be 166 rental apartments, 34 of them affordable. This past Tuesday evening, CB3 accepted the committee’s recommendation to approve the deal, with 18 voting yes and 11 voting no.
The opposition to the “Houston Dee” proposal was led by CB3 member Barden Prisant, who argued the city should build an all-affordable development on the parcel, rather than selling it to the private developer. He theorized that the developer would go ahead with the project, even without the city parcel. They’d by obligated to set aside 20-percent of the building as affordable regardless. The city would then be able to create 33 affordable units on its own property. Proceeding in this fashion, he suggested, would produce 25 units of additional affordable housing for the community:
Back in 2005 we voted to support this on the assumption that they would give back to the community something in the way of open space, because they basically demolished a community garden in order to sell ths land to the developer. At the committee meeting this month, we had a split vote on this, far from unanimous. There were definitely concerns… The city has demolished a community garden, given nothing back, they’re getting millions of dollars for it, none of which the city says it can direct towards our neighborhood… To me it’s a lousy deal.
But another board member, David Crane, said he believed Prisant was mistaken about the garden:
…There is not a community garden there. The city is under a court order not to have a net loss in community gardens. They swapped out different lots, same size. That garden has been (dormant) for 10 years… It was a vacant lot for quite a long time and then finally the city established a second garden a few blocks away… This garden has not been there for a long time. I do not think that is an issue.”
Land Use Committee Chair David McWater said the developer cannot be blamed for the lack of open space in the design plans. Referring to the rezoning of the Lower East Side two years ago, he explained, “we changed the zoning on them. It’s now a mandatory street wall. They can’t put open space there.” But more to the point, McWater asserted, some members had lost sight of what they were actually being asked to consider:
The fact is the city is selling this lot. That’s the question we’re being asked – whether or not we approve of the sale to this developer… This is the best case developer because they’ve got all of the lots, privately held, adjacent to it. So for them the real estate has much more value than for someone who just wanted to build a tiny sliver building… They can build market rate housing whether we approve this or not… The question is not whether we want market rate housing on Avenue D. The question is do we want to dispose of this land in this way… We pushed really hard in the zoning to get Houston Street and some of these other streets to have 20-percent affordable housing… If we want to build affordable housing let’s build affordable housing.
During the discussion, some members said CB3 was obliged to consider the ramifications of allowing a luxury building (studios are projected to cost $2800/month) to be built right across the street from, perhaps, the densest concentration of public housing in the entire city. CB3’s Harvey Epstein observed that the development seems geared towards a transient population, rather than people who want to establish deep roots in the community:
It’s really stark how many studios are in this building. If the city really wanted these to be affordable units for people who are going to stay in this community, they wouldn’t have such an overwhelming number of studios. So our 20-percent includes so few one and two bedroom apartments. Studios are transition housing. A studio isn’t something someone’s going to live in for 40 years. That’s my biggest problem with this, and that’s where the city should have really pushed this developer… I think the city failed us on this proposal.
A few board members said Prisant’s suggestion that 100-percent affordable housing could be built on the parcel, was unrealistic given the economic realities in 2010. Concerns were expressed that the lot could sit vacant for years to come. Val Orselli, an affordable housing advocate, said of the current Houston Dee proposal, “it’s a pretty good deal given what’s going on in this community.” Prisant responded, “HPD (the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development) builds affordable housing. They may not be able to do it this year. The economy will come back around. The city will have money.” He added, “I find it shocking that we should take this defeatist attitude and play down what we can achieve as a community board by sending a strong vote – that we should let it color our vote, this belief that we do not have a say in how this is being disposed of is disheartening.”
The community board was asked to weigh in on the sale of the city-owned lot, as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). In stipulations drafted by the land use committee, the developer reluctantly agreed to close its roof deck after 10 o’clock every evening. The affordable units will range in price from $460-$770/per month.