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December 6, 2013
Editor’s Note: Below is the text of a letter to Legislator Catherine Borgia, Chair of the Westchester County Legislature’s Government and Operations Committee, from Supervisor-elect Rob Greenstein and local architect Bill Spade, Chappaqua for Responsible Affordable Housing, reiterating the concerns they expressed—in a November 21 meeting of the same committee—about Hunts Place as a site for affordable housing.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
We wanted to get back to you with a clear re-statement of our issues with regard to the Conifer Affordable Housing proposal, and to make it clear that the residents of the Town of New Castle support affordable housing. The outgoing Town Board approved 20 units of affordable housing at Chappaqua Crossing, and the residents of the Town supported this. The opposition to the Conifer project is to the particular site and to the process, not against affordable housing.
1. THE SITE IS NOT ACCEPTABLE FOR RESIDENTIAL HOUSING
This piece of property is not suitable for residential—no matter who lives there. The Hunts Place site was turned down by the New Castle Planning Board for a market-rate housing development because the site was considered unsuitable for housing. We understand that affordable housing is sometimes next to a railroad track. We understand that affordable housing is sometimes next to a highway. We understand that affordable housing is sometimes next to a bridge. We understand that affordable housing is sometimes at the bottom of a highway ramp. We understand that affordable housing sometimes has no grass. But, this location has all five drawbacks! This location is next to a railroad track, next to a highway, next to a bridge, at the bottom of a highway ramp and has not a blade of grass.
This site is as close as fifteen feet from the train tracks there. The south-bound trains are required to blow their whistle as they enter the station, and this spot is directly in front of this building. The trains run from 5:00 a.m. to midnight every day, 40 times per day.
The Hunts Place site also presents serious traffic safety issues. Conifer has proposed the school bus stop to be at the bottom of the exit ramp for the Parkway. The school bus president has recommended alternative sights due to safety concerns and has specifically voiced her concerns about children who will be walking to the local middle school where the shortest distance will be across a four lane bridge during the peak morning rush hour. .
Other developers – both market-rate and affordable housing developers—rejected the site. Their reasoning was simple: the site is not suitable for residential housing – not suitable for any housing.
2. STIGMATIZATION AND ISOLATION OF RESIDENTS
The location of this affordable housing will isolate and stigmatize the residents of the building. As Craig Gurian, Executive Director of the Anti-Discrimination Center, has stated, “The whole idea is not to have housing that isolates people.” Mr. Gurian objects to the site because it “undermines the requirements of the consent decree.”
In addition, on July 12, 2012, the federal monitor in the 2009 fair and affordable housing settlement between Westchester County and HUD, James E. Johnson, expressed his concerns that “this project, as currently designed, will not further the goals of the consent decree and raises the risk of significant stigmatization and isolation of residents. As a result, this project also raises the risk of having a negative impact on the community.”
Johnson goes on to state that “as an initial matter, there is no question that this site has many of the indicia of isolation. It is bounded on three sides by, respectively, a railroad line, a bridge and a four-lane parkway. The only occupied property adjacent to the proposed development is a bus depot. The most viable pedestrian access to the site would be from a footbridge. Given those physical challenges, one could reasonably conclude that the obstacles to integration with the community, and the stigma associated with the separation, cannot be overcome.”
This housing complex is proposed for an industrial zone. Nothing has addressed the monitor’s concerns that the site isolates residents of the building. As stated above, it is next to a railroad, next to a Parkway, and overlooks a large municipal parking lot - it is not integrated into the community. There is also no ground-level outdoor recreation space. In addition, in order to safeguard children in the proposed building, the Town Board has made the installation of a fence along the length of the sidewalk curb of the Route 120 Bridge a requirement; this will further visually and psychologically isolate the residents of the building from the residents of the Town. This is a stigmatized, isolated project completely against the monitor’s criteria. While the monitor did write a more positive letter later in 2012, it remains very confusing how any of his initial concerns were addressed and the monitor made it very clear at a recent symposium at the White Plains Library that he has not approved these units as qualifying as units to satisfy the settlement with HUD.
3. NO PUBLIC SUPPORT IN NEW CASTLE
When this project was first publicly presented in 2010, the out-going Town Board had already been working with the developer for a year. The site was an industrially-zoned piece of property, and no housing was permitted on it. 6 months prior to this initial public presentation, the Town Board had altered the zoning in downtown to specifically accommodate this project. This alteration to the zoning code allowed affordable housing in the business districts of downtown, and on industrially-zoned properties within a 500-foot radius around the train station. This is the only site within 500 feet of the train station that sits in the industrial zone. So the Town Board knew the site and altered the zoning to enable this project without ever informing the public that this was what they were intending to do.
When the special permit was ultimately approved, it was approved despite widespread community opposition. In the most recent election, this affordable housing project was a highly contested issue. Candidates Rob Greenstein, Adam Brodsky and Lisa Katz ran on a platform that stated “A New Approach to Affordable Housing: We believe we should adhere to a policy of responsible affordable housing, with locations that are worthy of human habitation. We need to develop in a location that will not bring negative attention to our town. We believe in a Pragmatic Approach, Not Partisan Agendas,” Supervisor-Elect Greenstein publicly stated that, as a last resort, he would be in favor of repealing the amendment.
Greenstein, Brodsky and Katz all won decisively, overcoming a significant voter registration disadvantage (they ran on Republican line in a heavily Democratic town). Four out of five of the incoming town board members are against this affordable housing site.
4. FIRE-SAFETY ISSUES
There are serious fire safety issues with the Hunts Place building. In letter dated March 21, 2012 from the Chappaqua Fire Department, 2nd Assistant Chief Russell Maitland stated “we do continue to have concerns of apparatus staging (the safe placement of apparatus) for this project. Chappaqua Fire Department does not have a truck that can go up to four stories.”
The Chappaqua Fire Department’s equipment cannot reach the fourth floor or roof of this building. There is no way for people to therefore be rescued from these areas. There is no safe place for a fire truck to park to fight a fire. There is no access on the railroad side. There is no access on the Saw Mill River Parkway side without closing the Parkway. They can only stage it on the Quaker Street Bridge, from which access to the building is across a steep incline that would be a dangerous approach for firefighters. The only ground level access is from the Parkway off-ramp on the west side which, as was pointed out in Chief Maitland’s letter, is located within the building’s collapse zone. Less effective and much riskier rescue operations that place firefighters at inordinate risk would be required because of the accessibility issues at this site. Even ground ladders cannot be placed on the east or south sides to allow firefighters a backup escape route if their primary escape route should be blocked by fire.
The proposed building also requires at least eight building code variances from New York State. These building code variances all have to do with life-safety issues. In a letter dated November 11, 2013, Fire Protection Engineer Alfred J. Longhitano, P.E. FSFPE had serious concerns regarding the required variances listed in the Special Use Permit. Three of the eight variances are related to features of the building that are required by the building code to prevent the spread of fire from one property to the next. It was his professional opinion, as a fire protection engineer with nearly fifty years of experience in the fire protection engineering field, that granting variances from those requirements would deny the occupants of the building even the minimal protection against fire that they are promised under the building code. Considering the potentially serious exposure that a train fire would pose to the building and its occupants, and the serious exposure a fire in the building would pose to rail service, the protection required by the building code is minimal indeed, and should not be waived. The Chappaqua Fire Department is reviewing the Mr. Longhitano’s letter and we believe that they share many of his concerns and will state so in writing in the very near future as part of the state review.
Our building inspector still needs to approve this building, and yet has expressed serious concerns about the fire-safety and life-safety issues. He believes that the building as proposed is unsafe and will not issue a building permit for it.
5. EXCESSIVE COST - WE CAN DO BETTER
Is this the best way to spend $15,000,000 for affordable housing units? Is this an acceptable site to spend $545,000.00 per unit for affordable housing? Certainly, this $15,000,000 can be better spent on other affordable housing units, and more of them. Certainly, this $15,000,000 can be better spent on other affordable housing units that have a better chance of coming to fruition.
We realize that the County is doing their best to comply with the settlement. But, we should all want the best possible affordable housing in locations that we can be proud of. This site is just not fit for human habitation, and we all know it. There is more work to be done on making sure that the County has enough funds to comply with the Settlement and in the event that the County and the State do ultimately affirm the funding for this project, there is a pending Article 78 litigation that is likely to follow any such approval and this litigation could tie up these funds and make them unavailable for other projects.
Supervisor-elect Rob Greenstein, Town of New Castle
William R. Spade, Architect - AIA, Co-founder of Chappaqua for Responsible Affordable Housing