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New Nursing Home in Flood-Prone Red Hook Is Too Risky, Locals Say

By Nikhita Venugopal | December 4, 2015 1:28pm | Updated on December 6, 2015 6:29pm
 A rendering of the proposed nursing home at 141 Conover St. in Red Hook.
A rendering of the proposed nursing home at 141 Conover St. in Red Hook.
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Conover King Realty, LLC

RED HOOK — A new eight-story nursing home proposed for Red Hook's flood zone doesn't fit with the neighborhood and would be too risky for vulnerable patients in case of future storms, residents argued Thursday.

The 200-bed facility would be "totally out of character with this community," Community Board 6 member Jerry Armer said as the group's land use committee rejected the project in an 11 to 5 vote with one abstention.

Oxford Nursing Home, a healthcare provider that's currently based in Fort Greene, wants to leave its current location and construct a new building two blocks from the Buttermilk Channel on land it owns at 141 Conover St. in Red Hook. Most of the neighborhood was inundated with several feet of water during Hurricane Sandy..

The project, a roughly $65 million private investment, would feature a 157,500 square-foot buidling with a nursing home and a publicly-accesible urgent care center between Sullivan and King streets. There would also be 53 parking spaces for employees and visitors, attorneys for Oxford said at Thursday's public hearing held in P.S. 27.

More than two-dozen locals argued that the proposed building's size and design was unsuitable for the neighborhood.

Many residents also feared loss of parking and congestion at intersections near Van Brunt Street, which already grapples with heavy truck and bus traffic, they said. 

"It's chaos in the mornings," said Melissa Stewart, a neighbor of the proposed nursing home site. "Traffic added to that ... it's irresponsible."

Still reeling from the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, locals balked at the notion of having the facility in the middle of a flood zone. After Hurricane Sandy, a nursing home in the Rockaways was widely criticized for failing to ensure the safety of its patients.

Oxford attorney Nora Martins said his company would have a back-up diesel generator, emergency preparedness and evacuation plans should the need arise. But that did not appease locals, many of whom lived without heat, power or transportation for days after the hurricane, and foresaw the nursing home population drawing additional resources if a storm hit again.

"These people are going to be elderly. They're going to be in need of assistance and we're going to have to do what we have to do," said Jim Tampakis, a longtime resident. 

Oxford is seeking to rezone the 38,000 square-foot property to include both residential and manufacturing zones required to operate a nursing home by going through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. It would also require zoning certification, a zoning special permit and text amendment to comply with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing requirements. (Oxford has no plans to build any residential units, company officials said.)

"At the end of the day, we'll be a very good neighbor to the community," Oxford operator Barry Braunstein said after the vote.

During the hearing, a number of community members spoke in favor of the nursing home, including representatives from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, healthcare workers' union 1199 SEIU, and, most notably, both tenant association presidents for the Red Hook Houses operated by the New York City Housing Authority.

"We need nursing facilities," said Lillie Marshall, of Red Hook East Houses, who spoke about the growing senior citizen population in the area. "Nothing in life stays the same. You have to adapt to change."

Noticing a divide forming in the audience, some CB6 members urged residents to stay united. "I hate to see another entity coming in and pitting one group of Red Hookers against another group of Red Hookers," said resident Lou Sones.

City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who will have significant sway over the City Council's final vote on the rezoning application, said in a statement Friday morning that because of the community's "many major concerns," he would ask Oxford to look to find “an alternative site near Red Hook, but outside the flood zone."

Oxford Nursing Home purchased the L-shaped Conover Street property in 2003 but because it was added to the Industrial Business Zone a few years later, the project was delayed. It has since been removed from the IBZ, but rezoning would still be required for its proposed project. 

After meeting with Community Board 6 and residents for an informational meeting this past summer, Oxford agreed to cut down a floor — about 20,000 square-feet — from their original design and modify some design aspects of the building.

The current proposal is for an eight-story building with a set-back for the top floor.

"There's not much more we can do about the size of the building," said Oxford attorney Martins, who added that the design followed FEMA's base flood elevation levels. 

The nursing home in Fort Greene would be forced to close if they do not have a new space, Martins said.

Catherine Despont, a program director at popular art center Pioneer Works, said the 90-foot high nursing home would be more than double the height of their own building, located directly across the street at 159 Pioneer St.

She believed the building would cast a shadow on their warehouse-like space and spoil the "iconic image" created when the light streams through its windows.  

"The combination of light, space and programming create experiences that are nothing short of spiritual," she said at the meeting. "The nursing home would block that light entirely."

The application will be reviewed by CB6's full board next week. Community boards' recommendations are only advisory.  It will eventually be voted on by the City Planning Commission and City Council.