public housing

Brewer Ups Legal Fight Against Private Tower at NYCHA Site

The Holmes Towers public housing complex in Yorkville, on April 18, 2019.
The Holmes Towers public housing complex in Yorkville, on April 18, 2019. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

The politician suing over a long-stalled private development at a Manhattan public housing complex isn’t buying the city’s call for a do-over — and is pressing ahead with her legal battle.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says the New York City Housing Authority has not made substantial enough alterations to a plan to allow a private apartment tower to be built on an Upper East Side playground within the Holmes Towers complex.

“NYCHA has not changed its plan to develop this property — they have not changed the developer, the location, or the scale,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “They also haven’t even committed to comply with the current zoning for the site.”

Brewer filed papers late Tuesday challenging City Hall attorneys’ request to dismiss her April lawsuit over NYCHA’s plan for a 50-story building inside the development.

Her legal team dismissed NYCHA’s restart on the project as a “hide-and-seek strategy.”

“By back-peddling [sic] a few feet, [they] continue their pattern of attempting to shield the Holmes Towers Infill Development from any public scrutiny,” Tuesday’s filing reads.

A judge will consider the city’s request to dismiss the suit at a hearing on July 2.

Challenge to Mayoral Authority

Central to Brewer’s suit is her challenge of NYCHA and City Hall’s plan to use mayoral powers to override zoning at the site. An override by Mayor Bill de Blasio would circumvent the typical requirement for public review of the project, including a City Council vote.

After Brewer filed her lawsuit, NYCHA officials rescinded the Holmes project application it had submitted to federal housing authorities, though with few details on possible changes.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer attends a press conference at City Hall, Jan. 9, 2019.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer attends a press conference at City Hall, Jan. 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Interim NYCHA Chair Kathryn Garcia told THE CITY earlier this month the authority remains committed to completing a building on the site and working with Fetner Properties to do it. Specifics about the building’s design, height or number of apartments, however, are unclear.

But NYCHA is clear on one point: In the new plan, the proportion of market-rate units is going up.

Some 70% of the building would consist of market-rate apartments, in a neighborhood where a two-bedroom unit in a new high-rise like the one Fetner seeks to build rents for $5,500 a month. The Fetner building originally was slated to have half market-rate, half affordable units.

Holmes Towers currently needs $36 million in maintenance, according to NYCHA’s most recent assessment. Fetner has committed to contributing $25 million to NYCHA for repairs.

Garcia would not say whether a newly designed building at the 96th Street housing complex would go through a public review.  “I don’t know if we’re there yet,” she said.

Residents Seek Environmental Review

Holmes Towers tenant Latisha McNeill expressed skepticism about the restart on the Fetner project, which NYCHA officials say will include a new round of public meetings.

To McNeill, the approach seems like a way for NYCHA “to get us to be quiet.”

At the very least, she said, she wants the project to go through a full public review, which would include an environmental study. The new tower would mean construction outside her window, and the destruction of a playground her children use almost every day.

“They need to follow the proper guidelines,” she said. “They need to present the tenants and the people who are going to be affected with an environmental impact study. We have asked for that and we have not gotten it.”

The city has completed an environmental assessment, which found there would be no significant impact on the surrounding community from the project. Because of that finding, there is no legal mandate for a more in-depth environmental study, known as an environmental impact statement.

The Holmes site was the first location the de Blasio administration chose to lure private developers to build on public land in an effort to revitalize the beleaguered public housing system.

Local urban planning expert George Janes — who lives nearby the Holmes site and has studied it pro bono — thinks it’s especially important for the city to get its initial foray into working with private developers right. The way things have gone so far at Holmes is “just so wrong,” he said.

“We’re making these short-term financing decisions for the long-term future of these estates,” he said, using the British term for public housing. “It’s a shame.”

Clarification: A previous version of this article indicated that no environmental review had been conducted at the Holmes Towers site. The story has been updated to say that an environmental assessment has been completed, though an environmental impact statement has not.

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