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Collegiate School Shirking Affordable Housing Commitment, Locals Say

By Emily Frost | March 10, 2015 7:21pm
 The school said it couldn't find places to build affordable housing in the neighborhood, as part of its agreement to build a new school at Riverside South.
Collegiate School Affordable Housing
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UPPER WEST SIDE — The Collegiate School announced Monday it had reached a deal to pay the city $50 million to build off-site affordable housing after intially pledging to construct the units near its forthcoming school.

The affordable housing commitment originally came as part of an agreement allowing Collegiate to build a new school at the Riverside South development, where the units were planned to rise near the school at West 61st Street and Freedom Place.

Community members expressed outrage at the new plan, claiming Collegiate was reneging on its promise to build the units on site and facilitating a "gated community" of luxury developments at Riverside South rather than the mixed-income area they'd sought. 

"[The off-site agreement] changes the character of Riverside South. It makes it a less-affordable neighborhood," said Community Board 7 board member Jeanette Rausch.

Board members and residents also worried that the $50 million wouldn't go far enough in building the units because there is no concrete construction plan in place, just suggestions for where the city could build them.

Construction costs could rise in the time it would take to create a plan, and there could be unanticipated costs that the school would not be responsible for, leading to fewer units being built, they claimed. 

Elected officials and residents recently learned that the private K-12 boys school had put forth a potential alternative site on West 108th Street, but they discovered Monday the school would not be responsible for actually building those units. Instead, the money would go to the city to construct the housing somewhere in the CB7 district, potentially on West 108th Street.

The deal would absolve Collegiate of any further responsibility to see through the building of the units, city officials said.

An alternate proposal to work with developers to build affordable housing nearby or on site — by buying market-rate apartments and converting them to affordable units — fell apart this summer, said the school's lawyer, Ethan Goodman of Fox Rothschild LLP. 

The school spent the past six months quietly searching for places to build affordable housing in the neighborhood, but couldn't locate a spot, he said.

That's when Collegiate turned to the city to work out a compromise, resulting in a financial contribution that is "substantial and unprecedented," Goodman added.

"There was no magic to it," said Ray Hodges, director of Planning and Development at HPD, of how the parties arrived at the $50 million figure.  "It was something that was negotiated back and forth for quite a while. It seemed like a number that would afford [55 units]."

Locals argued they were getting short shrift in the deal. 

"At the cost of economic diversity in [the Riverside South] area, shouldn’t we be getting more, not less affordable units?" asked board member Mark Diller. 

He and other board members worried that the off-site affordable housing would run up a greater tab than anticipated and mean a stalled project or fewer units that originally promised.

"We know that the cost of construction vacillates so radically. Putting a $50 million price tag on 55 units is just a dream," said CB7 member Robert Espier.

Officials from HPD and the City Planning Commission present at the meeting could not confirm that Collegiate's contribution would be sufficient to build 55 units on the city-owned property on West 108th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.

"Not having a full plan, no we can’t say what the costs will be…The $50 million would not be the full development cost [at West 108th Street]. We couple that with subsidies and other financing," said Thehbia Walters, director of Manhattan Planning at HPD.

Regardless, the city was excited about the plan because "this 50 million would unlock the site," she said.

Longtime local resident Batya Lewton argued that "moving [the affordable housing] to 108th Street is moving a poor door all the way up to 108th Street." 

"This makes absolutely no sense," she said. "These units must be in Riverside South." 

Other residents agreed that moving the housing father uptown seemed like "shoving" the poor and moderate-income residents away from the rich. 

"It’s not the best option," Goodman acknowledged, "but it’s the best option Collegiate has."

The board agreed to write a letter to the City Planning Commission, which will vote on the plan at a March 18 public hearing, demanding the housing remain at Riverside South.