The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Planning Commission Questions Affordable Housing at St. John's Terminal

 The commissioners asked why affordable units were isolated in one of the project's three buildings.
The commissioners asked why affordable units were isolated in one of the project's three buildings.
View Full Caption

LOWER MANHATTAN — The City Planning Commission on Wednesday questioned the affordable housing allocation, number of parking spaces and size of the retail included in a plan for a massive, multi-building development across from Pier 40.

The city unveiled the plan for the St. John's Terminal development site at 550 Washington St. back in October with laudatory statements from Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod.

But Weisbrod's colleagues on the commission took issue at Wednesday's public hearing with elements of the plan that have also been called into question by the local community board and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

The hearing was part of a public review process required for developments that necessitate zoning changes. The proposed development for the site would be partially rezoned to allow residential development in four of its five buildings. The fifth may be a hotel.

Two of the residential buildings are slated for condos, one for affordable senior housing and one as mixed income rental housing, with 20 percent of the units reserved for people who make 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) and 30 percent for people who make 30 percent of the area median income.


Combined with the senior housing, the affordable units compose 25 percent of the development's total residential floor area and 30 percent of the total residential units.

But several commissioners, including Hope Knight, took issue with the affordable units being isolated in one building, and asked why that's the case — whether it's because the development's buildings are being underwritten individually.

The development's land use lawyer, Michael Sillerman of Kramer Levin, didn't specify how the project is funded, attempting to instead emphasize that there is no "poor door," referring to some buildings where affordable tenants have a separate entrance from those who pay market rate.

"I don't think that represents a poor door," he said. "To the extent that there is a building that's integrated, it's fully integrated 50-50 and it has shared services."

The affordable housing elements of the project were "developed in consultation with" the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Sillerman said.

"We really kind of followed their needs and their priorities," he said.

Having a separate 110,000-square-foot senior building "was considered to be desirable programmatically because of the needs" of that demographic, Sillerman said.

He allowed that the allocation of the units has "some to do with the overall financing," but insisted the mixed income building is "completely integrated" and maintained that "in a multi-building project, there are some buildings that are entirely market-rate and some that are 50-50."

Commissioners also questioned the size of the retail spaces in the project, the largest of which is 10,000 square feet and has been talked about as a potential grocery store. Two others are 4,500 square feet and 2,300 square feet.

Commissioner Cheryl Effron referred to it as "mall-esque," and several others raised concerns as to whether they will be neighborhood retail spaces or "destination" retail. 

Sillerman didn't give specifics on the retail use, though he tried to assure the commissioners that the developers "intend this to be service-oriented or synergize with" Pier 40.

"Until you’re out there on the market there’s a desire on the applicant’s side to not be straightjacketed," Sillerman said. "We’d like to maintain as much flexibility as possibility."

The massive project is made possible with the use of "air rights" from Pier 40, the sale of which is expected to finance critical repairs to the pier's crumbling pilings. Construction on the pilings has already begun using advance funds placed in escrow, Hudson River Park Trust President and CEO Madelyn Wils said at the hearing on Wednesday.

More than 70 people signed up to speak either for or against the project at Wednesday's hearing, with preservationists coming out against any transfer of air rights from Pier 40 and youth sports league supporters, construction unions and the city's powerful real estate lobby in favor of it.

The City Planning Commission is expected to vote on the project, and potentially recommend changes, by Oct. 6. The proposal then goes to the City Council for final review.

The developers have said they hope the project will be approved by the end of the year, so construction can begin in 2017.