Phipps Proposed Real Estate Development in Sunnyside
I attended a town hall regarding a real estate development proposal put forth by the Phipps Houses organization. The Phipps Houses organization is a non-profit dedicated to building and managing affordable housing. They have a number of sites including the Phipps Houses in Sunnyside and they are partners with the Related Companies in the real estate development at Hunters Point South.
The meeting was a voluntary first step taken by the Phipps Houses organization to gather community feedback and engage with the neighborhood regarding a proposal to use the land they own that is across Barnett Street behind the Phipps Houses in Sunnyside. The strip of land is currently occupied by a parking lot which stands adjacent to the LIRR railway tracks.
The proposal is in its early stages and at this point in time we were told that nothing is in the works formally - meaning no proposal has yet been officially submitted for government review. To build the 200 unit apartment complex, they need to request a zoning change from the city and thus would have to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure [ULURP] which can be lengthy and fraught with tension if the neighborhood is not, in some measure, on board.
What follows is an account of the presentation and discussion that took place Monday night October 26th, 2015 at the Phipps Houses in Sunnyside. The report includes a 7 minute video with highlights from the meeting which includes imporant points, some tensions, and a bit of laughter.
Click here to view the rest of our report on the proposed Phipps Houses real estate development in Sunnyside Queens.
Phipps Proposed Real Estate Development in Sunnyside
Phipps Houses Proposal For New Building In Sunnyside
Phipps Executives presented visuals of what the new building might look like, with three options shown. The proposals included a tree lined street and a building which they assured us would only stand two floors higher than the current Phipps House along 39th Avenue - meaning about 7 to 10 floors high. They said the building would be segmented into three connected components and that there would be one main entrance leading into the three subdivisions.
They told us that the building would be designed to accommodate families, with 16% of the units [32 units] having 3 bedrooms. On the second floor there would be access betwen the building subdivisions with communal outdoor space on that floor. There was something said about accommodating a Universal Pre K, but I missed the specifics. Lastly they were planning to create 200 parking spots to replace the 130 of daytime parking spots / 90 nighttime parking spots currently at the location. A member of the audience, who said he works for the parking lot operator, seemed to think those parking spot estimates weren't accurate.
Affordable Housing in Queens - Only 20% of Units Would be at or Below Median Income Affordability
As for affordability: A) 20% of the units [about 40 units] would be affordable for people making between $28,000 and $44,000 per year, B) another 30% of the units [about 60 units] would be affordable for those making the median household income of $50,000 to $115,000, and C) the remaining 50% of the units [100 units] would be affordable for those making considerably more than the median income, ranging from about $75,000 to $150,000 per year. Phipps Houses Executives told us this would "preserve the income diversity of the neighborhood".
The audience didn't seem to share that point of view. Many folks were somewhere between surprised, disappointed and downright angry when the affordable housing at Hunters Point South was rolled out, and they learned that in some cases the Bloomberg Administration had allowed rents exceeding $50,000 per year - which is just a sliver below the median household income in NYC and Queens - to be called 'affordable'.
Rental Price Increases Governed By Rent Guidelines Board - Price Increases Determined by NYC and NYS Government Officials
Adam Weinstein, Chairman of Phipps Houses, said that the rental price increases would rise in accordance with the increases approved by the Rent Guidelines Board. He noted that rent increases would be the lesser of the proposed increase by the Rent Guidelines Board or the rise in the Area Median Income.
Phipps Houses Management Takes Proactive Approach To Engaging Community
The Phipps Houses management proactively took this step to hold a town hall to hear how the community would react to the proposal under consideration before they plan to begin doing anything official. Pat O'Brien, the Community Board President, said he'd been engaged in discussions with Phipps Houses management about the proposal, and then O'Brien outlined the necessary steps required to gain approval of the project.
Government Procedures For Approval Of New Real Estate Development In Sunnyside
The steps toward development of the proposed 200 unit residential development include: 1) the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure [ULURP], as the lot is currently part of an M zone, which includes allowing the owner to erect a hotel, but not residential space, 2) review by the Community Board, 3) review by the Queens Borough President, 4) review by the City Planning Department and 5) a vote by the NYC Council.
Phipps Real Estate Development Contingent On Securing Low Interest Government Loans
The Phipps Houses executives told us that they needed low interest government secured financing to build the building, which is why they would agree to rent the units in accordance with the Rents Guideline Board. It's important to note that technically only 20% of the units are actually tied to the median income, while the remaining 80% of the rental unit prices are tied to ranges that start at the median income, but include a bandwidth that rises considerably above it. Phipps Houses executives told us that the building would agree to keeping the rents governed by the Rents Guidelines Board permanent.
Question & Answer Session
Will The Fire Department Need To Purchase New Equipment?
One audience member asked if the Fire Department would have to purchase new equipment to ensure the safety of the building, given it would be one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood. Phipps Houses executives said no new equipment would be needed, and that the new building would be built with a sprinkler system and in accordance with current fire safety standards. They noted that there are many other buildings in NYC that are far taller than the proposed building.
Alternatives To Developing The Site With Housing?
What would Phipps Houses do with the land if this proposal for an apartment real estate development in Sunnyside, fails to pass through the NYC Council? They told us that the lot is estimated to be worth about $10 to $13 million and that they would probably sell it to someone else to develop.
Building Renderings Make Barnett Look As Wide As The Champs Elysee
Someone noted that Barnett Street is a narrow street, but the renderings of the new building make Barnett look like the Champs Elysee. She went on to ask what the impact of having an additional 200 households on Barnett Street would do to traffic congestion. She talked about schools, transportation, parking, moving vans, garbage trucks, EMT and building maintenance.
Phipps Houses representatives told us the street is about a normal width at about 60 feet wide for a two way neighborhood street [part of Barnett is a more narrow one way street in the adjacent block]. Phipps Houses executives went on to note that a traffic study would have to be done to gain government approval, and that adding 200 more households to the neighborhood wasn't a signficant increase in the neighborhood density per se.
Phipps Houses Gets Income & Community Gets Higher Population Density & Affordable Housing
One man asked, "What's in it for us? You get low government financing and make money, and we lose parking space, get more traffic congestion and noise, more garbage and more pressure on crowded schools."
The Phipps Houses Property Manager said that the community gets an attractive new building and additional affordable housing units as outlined previously.
Steve Madden Company Concerned With Impact On Parking
Someone who works at the Steve Madden Company which is located at the corner adjacent to the current Phipps House said that many of their employees use the parking currently offered on the lot they would build upon. They noted that Madden employs 500 people who spend money in the community on food etc. The Phipps Houses executives told the audience that only 130 parking spots are required for the 200 unit building, and that they understand that parking is in high demand so they planned to include 200 spots which is well above the requirement per government guidelines.
Impact On Community Garden?
Someone asked if there would be any impact on the Community Garden across the street? Phipps Houses executives said no. They added that construction on a project like this takes about two years. The early work, excavation and pile driving are the dirtiest and noisest segments of the work. They told us that the staging for the construction could be largely managed on the site itself. The implication of these comments was that they were telling us that they wouldn't be obstructing Barnett Street much, while erecting the building.
Impact On Schools?
One man said that last Sunday they held a rally seeking the erection of a Middle School in the neighborhood as currently there isn't one very nearby and that the addition of 200 more families in the neighborhood might add to already overpopulated schools. The Phipps representatives said that they were looking into the possibility of doing something for Universal Pre-K.
Need More 'Affordable Housing' But Can You Make The 'Affordable Housing' More Affordable To People With Median Incomes?
One woman said the community needs to consider the larger picture which is that New York City is in desperate need of truly affordable housing.
She asked if they could make the 'affordable housing' more affordable to the people in the community by increasing the number of units to accommodate the lower end of the income range, which she felt was more reflective of the income of the current residents. Another woman asked if they could make some accommodation for older people, as many older people have had to leave their apartments and the neighborhood because they can't keep up with the rents.
Phipps Houses executives said they would consider these suggestions.
Negotiating With The Devil You Know, Versus The Devil You Don't Know
For better or for worse the Sunnyside neighborhood is going to continue to change. Phipps Houses executives informed us that they're not going to let a ten million dollar plus asset sit idly. And I think it's safe to assume that if they sell it - neither will the new buyer.
Phipps Houses is a private non-profit organization. It's important to note this - they are a not a for profit company. Their mission is to build affordable housing and they already have a huge investment in the community with the Phipps House. Adam Weinstein, the President and CEO of Phipps Houses, said that people vote with their feet and that the residents of the Phipps House have been residents for very long periods of time. I've met a number of the Phipps House residents over the years, and I know this to be true.
In spite of several complaints voiced regarding Phipps Houses management of the existing Sunnyside building, the folks I spoke to upon departing from the town hall seemed to think that Phipps is generally a fairly well managed building, although not perfect. It seems to me that the neighborhood could do a whole lot worse than expanding its relationship with Phipps Houses, and accommodating a 200 unit residential building.
My father used to tell me that it's better to "deal with the devil you know, than the devil you don't know". This is an old idiom and it means that it is often better to deal with someone you are familiar with and know, even if they are not ideal, than to take a risk with an unknown party.
Will Government Officials Start Negotiating For Housing That's Really Affordable & Not In Name Only?
The woman who asked Phipps Houses if they could increase the number of units that are affordable to the half of the population in the city making the median income or less, perhaps made the most important point, as that's where the real housing shortage lies.
Fully 80% of the units in the proposal, as put forth by Phipps at this town hall, are out of reach of half of all New Yorkers and likely targeted toward the top 26% of income earners in New York City. Currently Phipps Houses has allocated only 20% of the units of the proposed development pegged to the median income and below, meaning these are the only units that are within reach of the 50% of the population making the median income or less. And the below median income people are those most likely to have difficulty finding housing that they can afford.
Given that Phipps Houses needs community / government officials approval for: 1) the change in zoning, 2) the government backed low interest loans and 3) likely tax abatements - it seems the community / government officials should have a strong hand in negotiating for far more housing units that are affordable at the income levels of those who live in the neighborhood.
Thanks & Appreciation To Phipps & NYC Councilmember Van Bramer & You
I found the town hall, organized by the Phipps Management team in conjunction with NYC Councilmember Van Bramer, to be an informative town hall. The community expressed a number legitimate concerns and Phipps Houses executives seemed to be open to giving consideration to some of the suggestions as it makes its future plans.
What is built, who builds it, and who the community engages with for the long term, remains to be seen. And if you are reading this, that means likely, in some measure, the outcome is in part up to you. So a final thanks to you and the people who attended the town hall for paying attention to the affairs of your community.
Stay tuned. There's surely more to come.
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