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Plan to Build Apartments on Top of Playground Is Still a Mystery: Residents

By Shaye Weaver | January 28, 2016 8:17am
 NYCHA plans to replace a playground at Holmes Towers with an apartment building.
NYCHA plans to replace a playground at Holmes Towers with an apartment building.
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DNAinfo/Shaye Weaver

UPPER EAST SIDE — The city remains quiet about plans to build a mixed-income residential tower on top of an existing playground at a public housing complex on East 93rd Street.

The New York City Housing Authority made a number of promises to the community regarding a plan to build roughly 350 apartments — 50 percent of which will be market-rate — on top of a playground at Holmes Towers. But when pressed for specifics during a five-hour City Council hearing on Tuesday night, representatives of the agency had little to offer.

NYCHA has had 14 meetings with residents of the complex since the plan was announced in September 2015, but residents say they don't feel any more enlightened. Construction of the building is expected to start as early as next year, according to a spokeswoman for the agency.

 Holmes Towers needs $30 million in capital improvements, including upgrading kitchen cabinets like this one.
Holmes Towers needs $30 million in capital improvements, including upgrading kitchen cabinets like this one.
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"We have a lot of questions and yet there are no answers," said Sandra Perez, president of the Holmes Towers Tenants Association. "[People] are not trusting them. In every other meeting we've had previously, they just kept beating around the bush to the questions."

Although the agency has said the plan will move forward, whether residents like it or not, the meetings were meant to gather community input and to make sure residents understand why the project is necessary, according to reps.

"We haven't talked about unit counts or dollar amounts or any plan details yet, because we have tried to ground residents in what this program means to their community and why we have to do it," said Shola Olatoye, the chairwoman and CEO of NYCHA.

The project, called NextGeneration, is meant to generate revenue for NYCHA's capital projects, which would include making repairs and improvements to public housing developments citywide. The city is targeting underutilized land to create 30 to 40 mixed-use developments, one of which will be at Holmes and another at Boerum Hill's Wyckoff Gardens.

But when asked how much of the money would go directly to Holmes Towers, representatives of NYCHA could not provide an answer. Holmes Towers alone has $30 million worth of capital needs, the reps said, adding that some of those repairs will be made during construction of the new apartment building.

According to NYCHA, capital needs at Holmes include upgrades to the roof, kitchens, bathrooms and windows — repairs that residents say should be made regardless of construction.

"[This] will barely put a dent into NYCHA's deficit," said Holmes Towers resident Claribel Garcia. "We will not give up our land in order to get repairs done that we have a right to anyway."

Other concerns expressed by residents at the Tuesday hearing included worries about affordability of the below-market units included in the new building and a general lack of transparency about what the project will entail and how the city would mitigate potential overcrowding at local schools and any impact from construction.

“The Yorkville section of Manhattan is loaded with construction,” said former Holmes Towers resident Saundrea Coleman. “It’s hard to deal with overcrowding … to squeeze another building in with anywhere from 200 to 400 tenants will affect transportation and schools … with no clear plan on how to successfully handle these issues.”

Holmes Towers, located at East 93rd Street and First Avenue, currently has two playgrounds, one of which will become the site of the new building, according to NYCHA, though they still haven't decided which one. The two existing towers in the complex make up about 540 units.

The new tower will incorporate both low-income and market-rate apartments and reserve 25 percent, or roughly 40 out of 350 units, for NYCHA families. To be eligible for those units, a family of three would have to make at most $46,000 a year.

But residents argued that the income level is too high considering the average income for Holmes Towers residents according to NYCHA is $25,000 per year.

"Me and my neighbors would not be able to afford any proposed developments on any of NYCHA's land," Garcia said.

NYCHA officials said the agency would reserve a number of units for those who make less, but did not have “an exact breakdown."

A spokeswoman for NYCHA said on Wednesday that the agency would also consider giving special preference to Holmes Towers residents or possibly Manhattan residents.

NYCHA also promises to replace the lost play space with a new and improved playground somewhere else on the property, though its exact location has not yet been set, reps said.

A developer will need to be selected before NYCHA can share more detailed plans, according to Olatoye.

A developer should be chosen by the end of this year, a spokeswoman said.

“We have been up front on a range of numbers, but we’re not going to put it out there,” Olatoye said. “We have very clear expectations and expect to get the maximum amount of revenue so we can address the capital needs here."

But Councilman Ritchie Torres questioned whether NYCHA's plans would at all benefit the residents already living in Holmes Towers.

"I disapprove of how the administration is approaching these mandates because how do you expect tenants to respond well to new housing in their development without an extensive rehab in their own building? It creates a visual 'Tale of Two Cities,'" he said. "Provide real benefits. What we have is open-ended promises but nothing concrete. So far, tenants have nothing concrete and NYCHA has nothing to show for it, which deepens suspicion."

NYCHA plans to meet with tenants again on Feb. 18 and 23 to have a conversation about what type of communal spaces they'd want in the new building.

"We'll talk about potential components ... and then talk about options," Olatoye said.