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Local Leaders Fear Loss of Affordable Housing in Riverside South Plan

By Emily Frost | March 19, 2015 7:31pm
 Collegiate School is volunteering to provide affordable housing units, but that is not a requirement, according to the 2010 restrictive declaration.
City Admits Fewer Affordable Housing Units Required at Riverside South
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UPPER WEST SIDE — The Collegiate School is not required to build any affordable housing at the site of its new school in the luxury Riverside South development — nor is any other developer if the school walks away from the deal, local leaders learned Wednesday.

Elected officials and residents previously believed the private boys school was obligated to build 55 affordable housing units in exchange for constructing a new nine-story school building at West 61st Street and Freedom Place. 

But they discovered Wednesday that the 55 units are not a legal requirement — a "bombshell" revelation that had locals fearing for the amount of affordable housing in the development.

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Currently, the Riverside Center section of the development where Collegiate wants to build, from West 59th to 61st streets, has not met the requirement to make 12 percent of all units affordable, city officials said. Locals believed that 55 units promised by the school would fulfill that requirement.

But language from a 2010 agreement between the city and developer Extell states that the 55 affordable units don't have to come from within the Riverside Center site.

That shortfall can and will be met by affordable housing already being built elsewhere by other developers in the larger Riverside South complex, which runs from West 59th to 72nd streets.

Community members recently learned that the K-12 school planned to pay the city $50 million to build 55 affordable units at another site farther uptown instead of at Riverside South.

"Collegiate has volunteered to provide those units," Edith Hsu-Chen, director of the Manhattan office for the Department of City Planning, said at a Community Board 7 meeting Wednesday.

But news of the school's lack of legal obligation could jeopardize its $50 million commitment, locals worried.

"Collegiate could walk away from that [commitment] and build the school elsewhere," said City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal. 

CB7 member Audrey Isaacs added that "Collegiate could now argue that they may just refuse to build 55 units at all."

Hsu-Chen noted that if Collegiate did abandon the project, "then somebody could build market-rate apartments [on that site]" with no affordable housing contribution.

"There is not a legal requirement that the 55 units be provided," she explained. "There is a full expectation [from Collegiate], which is different."

The news caught many locals off guard.

"This is a total bombshell to me. What we learned today is that in our [2010] negotiation for Riverside Center, we didn’t know what we were negotiating for," said Nick Prigo, CB7's housing committee chairman. 

"Everybody on the community board was negotiating a different [affordable housing] package."

Having affordable housing units in Riverside South count for those in Riverside Center "was never the intent," and "not what we thought was being negotiated," added Brian Cook, land use director for City Comptroller Scott Stringer. 

"This is certainly not in the spirit of what was intended in the Riverside South agreement, certainly not in Riverside Center," Rosenthal told city officials at the meeting. "And so you can see what a big shock and disappointment it is to the community."

Hsu-Chen reiterated that the city is holding Collegiate to its $50 million commitment by requiring the funds before it provides any building permits. 

Jessica Katz, assistant commissioner for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, reassured board members that the deal is still intact.

"That is a tremendous deal for us, and we’re very happy with it," she said, adding that affordable housing can typically be built on city property for around $400,000 per unit. Using that figure, HPD anticipates the $50 million will mean more than 55 units, Katz noted. 

Residents and community members previously accused Collegiate of shirking its affordable housing commitment when the school announced it would not build the units at the Riverside South site.

"It does seem like Collegiate in effect is doing us a favor...because we were hearing that if someone else took the site, we might not get the units," board member Mark Diller explained.

CB7 member Dan Zweig advocated for accepting the school's offer as it stands. 

"We ought to grab it and we ought to take it," he said.

Elected officials called on the city to delay its vote on the $50 million offer, scheduled for a March 30 City Planning Commission meeting, to give them more time to mull the situation. But a Collegiate representative said a delay could destroy their development deal.

"Our partner from whom we are buying the site has the option to walk away with no penalties, which is a very real option of happening," if the school doesn't get the go-ahead to begin construction this month, said George Fantos of Capalino + Company, which represents the school.

The City Planning Commission did not return a request for comment on whether it would delay the March 30 vote on Collegiate's offer, which is tied to their ability to begin construction.

Noting it was an excellent deal for the city, HPD's Katz asked board members repeatedly which direction they wanted to go with the Collegiate funding.

She asked if the board wanted to spend time brainstorming alternate sites within the neighborhood for the housing, or if they preferred to move forward with the "bird in the hand" option of building it on city land at West 108th Street.

Ultimately, board members didn't formulate any kind of resolution and said the plans would be part of an ongoing discussion.