City Council Votes to Okay Controversial Senior Housing Proposal
The City Council voted to approve the Haven Green proposal on Wednesday, bringing the controversial plan for a senior housing facility on the site of the Elizabeth Street Garden, in Little Italy, a step closer to reality. The vote in favor of the project was unanimous, except for one abstention from Rafael Espinal, a Council member from Brooklyn.
The strong majority in support of the proposal reflected the City Council’s tradition of deferring to a member in whose district a project is located. Because Council member Margaret Chin, who represents Lower Manhattan, supports Haven Green, its passage was viewed as a fait accompli.
The Council’s approval marks the fifth milestone in the City’s legally required Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which entails six steps in reviewing any proposed use of publicly owned land, such as the Elizabeth Street Garden. The first four of these were certification by the City Planning Commission of the application, review by Community Board 2 (CB2), approval by Borough President Gale Brewer, and approval by the City Planning Commission. After being okayed by the Council, the final remaining requirement is approval by the Mayor.
CB2 rejected the plan in January, reflecting the hotly debated trade-off involved in shrinking a much-treasured open space in exchange for affordable housing for seniors. But CB2’s opposition was not enough to stop the project. The ULURP process requires only that the Board be given an opportunity to weigh in on such a plan — not that it agree.
In February, Ms. Brewer gave the plan her qualified endorsement, attaching conditions to her support, such as preserving more open space than was envisioned in the plan’s initial iteration.
Ms. Chin responded by brokering an arrangement under which an adjoining courtyard would be conflated with the open space planned for Haven Green, doubling the total square footage of outdoor area planned for the project, and nearly maintaining parity with the amount of open space in the existing Elizabeth Street Garden. (The same deal also contains provisions to extend affordability provisions at a nearby apartment building.)
These developments set the stage for a combative City Council hearing in May, in which supporters and opponents of Haven Green squared off for an hours-long shouting match. Both sides clung to absolutist stances, focusing either on the urgent need to preserve open space, or the compelling priority of creating affordable housing for the elderly. Few participants (if any) appeared to come away from this session having budged from their original position.
That hearing was the precursor to Wednesday’s vote, which Ms. Chin called, “the result of a bold collective effort to provide housing justice for vulnerable older New Yorkers. From the beginning, this project aimed to balance the desperate need for senior affordable housing in Little Italy — a neighborhood where only 70 units of affordable housing were created over the last decade — with the community’s desire for open space. We continued to work to create even more space, and secured an agreement with the adjacent building to add thousands more square feet of green space accessible to the community. As part of this agreement, 152 units of Section 8 apartments at this neighboring building will also remain affordable.”
The current version of the plan for Haven Green, originally announced by City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in 2017, includes 123 units of senior housing, a headquarters for Habitat for Humanity New York City, and a flexible community activity space. The “deeply affordable” apartments (with monthly rents ranging from $331 to $761) will be set aside for seniors with incomes ranging between $20,040 and $40,080 per year, with about 30 percent of the apartments reserved for seniors who were once homeless.
In recent years, the lack of affordable housing for the elderly has burgeoned into a slow-motion crisis in New York City, where one in five seniors lives below the poverty line. There are more than 100,000 elders on waiting lists for senior housing, and the average wait for a home on these lists is seven years. Many die before reaching the head of the line.
The new building will also be constructed to “passive house” standards, which will significantly reduce the building’s energy consumption. (The project is expected to use 60 to 70 percent less energy than a standard building of its kind.) The structure and the public open space will also be designed to manage and reuse storm water, relying on a rooftop rain-harvesting system and permeable surfaces covering the majority of the open space.
But even as the ULURP process moves toward a conclusion, Haven Green’s ultimate fate may not yet be decided. In March, two groups opposed to the project filed separate lawsuits seeking to block it. One of these enlisted support from two elected officials, State Assembly members Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou, who have signed on as co-plaintiffs. Both legal actions are expected to begin arguments in front of a judge this fall. So the final verdict may be rendered by the courts.
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