HARLEM — A group of angry and skeptical residents and activists questioned the New York City Housing Authority's plan to build market-rate housing on the campus of Washington Houses during a sometimes raucous meeting in East Harlem Thursday night.
Participants questioned whether the project is just the beginning of gentrification efforts designed to replace them.
"This is about systematic gentrification," said resident Raul Ortiz. "What's the guarantee for us that this project will be it and won't continue?"
Under the proposal presented to residents after a presentation about NYCHA's $13.4 billion unmet funding for capital improvement throughout its 344 developments, the agency proposed 99-year leases of two sites on Washington Houses' 20-acre campus stretching from East 97th Street to East 104th Street on Second and Third avenues.
A site next to P.S. 109 on East 99th Street and an adjacent site on Third Avenue and East 99th Street would be leased to developers to build rental housing.
At Third Avenue and East 99th Street officials told residents they would take a 57,000 square foot parcel where a community center is now located and offer the land for lease to developers to build a project up to 500,000 square feet in size. At an adjacent East 99th Street site, 16,500 square foot parcel could yield a building up to 350,000 square feet in size.
NYCHA board member Margarita Lopez emphasized that 80 percent of the rental housing would be market rate and 20 percent would be permanently affordable. No residents would lose their apartments or be displaced by the project, nor would their rent be increased.
Instead, the money would be used to address the $52 million in capital renovations that are needed at Washington Houses for its almost 3,500 residents.
"Our buildings are 79 years old. They need care," Lopez said. "We need to figure out how to find the money to fix them. If we don't fix them we will lose them."
The plan is part of a larger effort by NYCHA to build infill development on what it considers underutilized space on its developments, such as open park space and parking lots to raise money to fund the authority's capital operations due to years of underfunding from the federal government.
The plan would generate between $30 and $50 million in revenue for NYCHA per year, officials estimate.
Washington Houses is one of eight developments in Manhattan that will be listed in a request for proposal to developers interested in building rental projects on the land. There are 13 parcels of land being offered for development.
Harlem has already served as a test case for this type of NYCHA infill development with the construction of the Harlem Children's Zone School in the middle of St. Nicholas Houses. The project at St. Nicholas Houses was the first time NYCHA has reopened one of its superblock developments to through street traffic.
At Washington Houses, a project from Harlem R.B.I. that will see the construction of a charter school and 90 units of affordable housing on what was trash compactor space broke ground last month. That project will see the construction of an additional playground, redesign of an adjacent park and provide $11 million for new elevators at the complex.
Despite the promise of money for improvements, residents and activists remained skeptical.
"Developers are into making money and exploiting our community," said Arnaldo Arzeal, 37, who lives in the Bronx and said he was worried about the infill projects moving there soon. "We've been exploited before."
David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement, said he was concerned if there would be a "continuity of services" for his group's community center that would be knocked down.
"I don't want them to knock the building down and tell us to come back three years later," he said.
NYCHA officials said construction would be done so as not to interrupt services and that amenities such as parking and playgrounds would all be replaced.
Gwen Goodwin, a City Council candidate for the 8th District who fought to save P.S. 109 from demolition, urged residents to fight the proposal. Only one or two people raised their hands when she asked who was in favor of the NYCHA proposal.
"Haven't we sold out our community enough? When do you want to draw the line in the sand?" she said. "I'm not satisfied that rich people will take over this neighborhood."
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said she had concerns about the pace at which the proposal was moving and criticized NYCHA for meetings filled with voluminous amounts of information.
"This is happening way too fast," Mark-Viverito said. "We have a mayor that leaves at the end of the year who supports this process. We know this will be sped through by the end of the year."
But Mark-Viverito did not express opposition to the proposal after she said it was necessary to acknowledge that NYCHA was being severely underfunded by the federal government. She addressed criticism of her by some speakers by saying it was important not to allow "interlopers" to influence the decision-making process.
"I'm not saying this is a solution but there has to be an acknowledgement that there is a crisis in public housing," she said.
Lopez said this plan is the best solution.
"We are not going to lose in this equation in any way, shape or form," she said to the skeptical crowd.