Op-Ed: Process & thoughtfulness will make affordable housing that fits our town

December 24, 2010
by William R. Spade

In response to the discussion of the proposed affordable housing development on Hunts Lane, it strikes me that, between our restrictive zoning code for the downtown area, and the existing land-uses in that area, we have left ourselves with the dilemma of seemingly few choices for affordable housing, or residential uses in general.  This, I believe, has led our Town Board to view a 5-story monstrosity as an all-in-one solution.  However, there are a number of alternatives that could be pursued, including land-use revisions as well as other specific parcels that, with enough time and concerted effort on the part of the Board, would generate affordable housing options more consistent with the character of our town.

One alternative is to consider changes to the zoning code for the downtown zones.  Based on my own limited review of our code, the main zone in what we consider downtown is a business zone (B-RP) which limits buildings to 2 stories in height.  However, many of the lots in this zone are occupied by one-story buildings.  This, creates an economic barrier to any further development on these parcels.  To add another story to an existing building, or to tear down a one-story building to build two stories, is economically infeasible, especially if the intent were to create affordableunits.  I believe that the B-RP zone should be modified to allow 2-1/2 or 3-story structures, which I thinkwould encourage more appropriate low-scale alternatives, with retail/commercial below and residential above, than one out-of-scale 5-story building.  And the addition of any new residential development in town would be a great boon to our downtown businesses.

In conjunction with this, the Board should also consider further modifying the workforce housing floating zone (which is presumably the zone that would get applied to the Hunts Lane property), which presently restricts lots to being within 1,500 feet of the train station.  This then artificially excludes viable lots in other parts of town.  This only serves to further reduce the options. 
A second alternative is to consider the land-use patterns that have evolved in the downtown area.  One need only look at a map to see that the majority of our property in town is devoted to municipal uses.  This includes Town Hall, the train station parking lot, the commercial parking lots, and Bell school.  A bit further from the immediate downtown is the Chappaqua Ambulance Corps and the Town DPW properties.  If creating affordable housing is a priority, we should be looking at these existing land uses that absorb huge swaths of valuable downtown land, especially the parking lots, and look at these properties to help solve this problem. 

A third alternative is to consider a number of privately-owned parcels that may be currently underutilized, and with proper zoning incentives, be developed with some portion of affordable housing.  These include the vacant Maxime Bistro’s property on North Greeley or the 126 and 142 King Street properties.  Outside of the downtown area, there are other parcels in the area of the 120 / 117 intersection, or in Millwood at 120 / 133 that might be viable alternatives.  These would have shopping and transportation services immediately available, but should not be precluded just because they are not near the train station.

Our need for affordable housing isn’t the result of a sudden, unforeseen ruling by a federal judge, and the need to come up with a quick fix with limited options.  On the contrary, it’s the result of overly restrictive zoning and the absorption of large portions of our downtown area with municipal uses.  Taken together, revisions to our zoning code and revisions to our concepts of land uses in the downtown area could engender the necessary changes to make residential development, and affordable housing, more viable in lower scale solutions.  We should be looking at all of the properties in the downtown area under municipal control, and the many others that are privately-owned, to encourage more thoughtful solutions that would be in keeping with the scale and character of our community.  While this may take more time and effort on our Board’s part, the Board should not take the quick and easy solution, and permanently stick us with a 5-story, out-of-scale and out-of-character building, while saying that there are no other viable options.

Preserving the historic character of our town depends on the process and thoughtfulness we employ to resolve this issue.

William R. Spade
Architect and 20-year resident of Chappaqua

Letter to the Editor: Hunts Lane affordable housing plan too massive for site
Monday, December 13, 2010
by William R. Spade

Open letter to the Town Board: Hunts Lane proposal makes Chappaqua Crossing wholly a liability
Monday, December 13, 2010
by Betty and Leonard Weitz

To catch up on Chappaqua Crossing/Reader’s Digest matters, see all NCNOW’s archived material, in chronological order, by clicking HERE.

We encourage civil, civic discourse. All comments are reviewed before publication to assure that this standard is met.

Affordable housing should not be built anywhere but in immediate proximity to the train station.  Building in the residential areas of the town is inappropriate, and will be severely detrimental to property values for homeowners in the area.

By J-H Lee on 12/24/2010 at 9:21 am

Mr. Lee:  I must disagree with your sentiment wholeheartedly.  That line of thinking is the heart of the problem, and is what led to our overly-restrictive zoning to begin with. 

Affordable housing is housing that our teachers, firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers and other municipal employees, amongst a variety of other people who perform vital services – maybe including architects – can afford in order to live in our community.  We depend on their services – why should we exclude them from being able to afford to live in our community?  And to live in areas of the community that are residential in character? 

With that line of thinking, where do we stop?  Do we down-zone even further, since 1/4-acre single family lots may have a detrimental effect on 1- or 2-acre lots?  It’s a slippery slope if you argue that certain classes of people should not be accommodated in a community out of fear that their presence will harm the value of other property. 
Further, it has been well-documented that thoughtful and well-planned developments in keeping with the character of a community have no detrimental effect on property values. 

My argument is that, rather than building a 5-story building in a 1- and 2-story community that forever and always will be obvious as the “affordable” building” (and further stigmatizing within the community whoever may live there), if we plan developments that are integrated with the surrounding area, the fact that they may contain affordable housing would not even register.

It seems to me that the key issue is a matter of integration – an integration into our heretofore exclusive community of more people of a greater economic and racial diversity than we’ve been able to achieve thus far.  The DOJ settlement requires a quota for integration, (trying to solve the numeric issue), but we should be further concerned with the character of that integration, so that the solution integrates our new neighbors fully into the community.

By William R. Spade on 12/24/2010 at 10:18 am

Mr Spade…you want to use “municipal properties” to solve these problems?? In your own words “we should be looking at these existing land uses that absorb huge swaths of valuable downtown land, especially the parking lots, and look at these properties to help solve this problem.” Every commuter, shopper, resident, and merchant in our community knows that parking and associated traffic and congestion is a huge problem in downtown New Castle. AND your solution is to use some of the limited and scarce parking we have and build on it affordable housing? I assume you live in town but you must not spend much time downtown. Try and find a parking spot midday- take an 8 am train to NYC and you will practically be parking in Pleasantville! Now you want to build housing on or near these parking lots. Absurd! 

By tired resident on 12/24/2010 at 11:06 am

Well, let’s see, is there a solution to a sea of on-grade parking, where everyone has to walk long distances to get to their destination?  Ah yes – how about a parking structure?  maybe 2 or 3 levels?  I do spend a lot of time in town, and at the train station parking lot, so maybe that’s why I feel comfortable to press for more forward-looking solutions to these issues, instead of accepting the status quo.

Someday, we’re going to have to come to grips with the reality that the sea of asphalt that is the train station parking lot is an inefficient land-use solution and bad for the environment (stormwater run-off, heat island effect, etc.).  We should tackle that issue head-on now, because it will just gradually become more of a conflict with other land-use needs in town.  This is also true for the other parking lots in town.

I recall that, some years ago, the Town considered an affordable housing development on the then-undeveloped portion of property along Washington Avenue.  The Town backed away in favor of paving it for more parking, and not addressing the affordable housing issue at all.  By ignoring it then, we are now being forced to deal with it in a manner that is not totally in our control.  Yet we still have some time to come up with good solutions.

And I’m certain that many of the merchants, if not all, would love it if there were more people living in town, instead of just commuter parking spaces.

We need to have courageous, visionary leadership on these issues, if we’re going to move forward in a proactive, rather than reactive, manner, and come up with solutions that will be good for the future of this community, not just the present.

By William Spade on 12/24/2010 at 4:25 pm

As I previously posted in reply to other Op-Ed articles regarding this matter, the yellow building site, which is the former restaurant that has been vacant for probably ten years, and is located opposite the post office, is a far better location than the over sized five story building proposed for the site of the Rte 120 bridge. All affordable housing need not be located on one site, perhaps a three story building located at the bridge is a viable solution with the other two stories of housing located across from the post office, etc. A three story building located at the bridge may likely reach the level of the bridge but not tower over it. There are an ample number of other sites to accommodate this project. More thought needs to be given to this matter before a satisfactory solution is reached. Any comments?

By Post Office Site on 12/24/2010 at 10:43 pm

Affordable taxes for present residents should be a priority over affordable housing for people who are not. To the extent that any new family moves in with 2 or more children, taxes for present residents would rise if it is still correct that the taxes for an average house only cover the costs of educating 1.5 children.
Until the present budgets of town/county/etc. and school district are borne less by homes and more by businesses instead of more—or until imaginable and unimaginable cuts are made in expenditures—affordable taxes should be given greatest weight. That should also be borne in mind when businesses seek retroactive tax cuts—as others, financially weak or strong, have succeeded in getting in the past.

By Long-suffering resident on 12/24/2010 at 10:48 pm

To Long-Suffering:

I agree that this isn’t the easiest time to figure out how and where to create the mandated affordable housing, but in good times we didn’t seem to be able to create it, either.  So we might as well hop to it and get some done. 

But as far as costs go, I’m afraid that the kind of well-distributed affordable that Mr. Spade prefers just isn’t feasible or, really, affordable to BUILD. Neither the county nor we residents have the wherewithal to afford affordable housing that looks great, or that looks like townhouses rather than apartment buildings.  What do we do about that?  Where are the designers who know how to make units of great design and reasonable cost?  Most likely, it will mean apartment building type housing.

By Thinking Hard on 12/24/2010 at 11:01 pm

I applaud William Spade message re on-grade vs. multi-level parking. The “courageous, visionary leadership” he calls for has been missing for too many years; I don’t even recall a public discussion. As for costs of any structure, does anyone think they are going down as the economy improves?

By Long-suffering resident on 12/27/2010 at 8:22 am

So far I’ve only seen 2 letters to the Editor voicing concerns over Hunts Lane and both of them are from Mr. Spade, so it seems evident that he is very focused on expressing his views on the aesthetics of this proposal.  That’s absolutely fine as long as the Board understands Mr. Spade’s view does NOT at all represent the majority (at least not from what I can see in public fora).  As a Chappaqua resident with young children and already big financial burdens, I know firmly where I stand on the issue of aesthetics vs. affordability.  Sure, does my family want a garden that looks like one of those in multi-million dollar mansions?  You bet, but can I afford it?  No, so I try to make the majority of my household happy by selecting from the options that are not only available to me but also within my budget.  I personally don’t see why the decision around Hunts Lane should be any different.

By Young Chappaqua family on 12/28/2010 at 9:59 am

It is unfortunate that there is so little affordable housing in the town.  One
reason is the over expansion of smaller homes on small lots that has been
sanctioned thru the years by the zoning board.  In fact, they have argued that
these expansions make all the homes more valuable. The FAR legislation does
little to protect neighborhoods with half and quarter acre zoning from these outsize expansions, allowing a 4800 square ft. house on a half acre.  The result has been a continuing depletion of the stock of smaller more affordable homes in New Castle, which has meant a substantial loss of less affluent families in the community.  I believe that this erosion has made the town a less, not more valuable place to live.

By Bob on 01/03/2011 at 12:31 pm

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