On West 53rd, Affordable Housing Lottery Favors Locals

As the beautiful brick building at 540 W. 53rd St. nears completion, the affordable housing lottery begins. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

BY WINNIE McCROY | After 14 years of negotiations and construction, the huge apartment building at 540 W. 53rd St. is preparing to open their affordable housing lottery. And this charming brick building offers units for a variety of household sizes and income levels from about $39,000­ to $172,000 — from a single person to a household of four. And there’s more good news for locals: Community District 4 residents are given preference.

“I want to emphasize that it’s not just for low-income people, but for everyone in the middle,” said Joe Restuccia, executive director of the Clinton Housing Development Company (CHDC) and member of Community Board 4 (CB4). “The most expensive three-bedroom will be $3,200. Where can you find a three-bedroom for $3,200 in our neighborhood? And they will all be the same apartments with the same finishings, just at different income levels.”

L to R: Joe Restuccia with project managers Ryan Marcano and Allison Morris. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

Said Jean Daniel Noland, Chair of the CB4 Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee, “This is a tremendous achievement by CHDC and a great boon for the neighborhood. It was a complex development to put together, not only because of the details of creating hundreds of affordable apartments for a range of incomes; but also because of the puzzle of relocating long-time neighborhood businesses and finding space for community gardens.”

The project began way back in 2004 when Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) was developing large high-rises from W. 51st to W. 53rd Sts., between 10th and 11th Aves. An oversight by the city to get legal possession of the existing LeNoble Lumber-occupied property derailed the entire project in the middle of the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process.

Clinton Housing worked with HPD and LeNoble Lumber to make an agreement to temporarily relocate the lumber company offsite from all the locations it had occupied since 1965, allowing the project to proceed. That city agreement gave LeNoble the right to come back to 25,000 square feet somewhere on the Urban Renewal Area.

In 2014, the neighboring building owned by Taconic Investment Partners asked Clinton Housing to do a 38-story midblock tower, which they refused. Clinton Housing did agree to let Taconic purchase about $18 million in development rights, and sold another $8 million in inclusionary rights to Moinian Companies.

Clinton Housing entered a joint venture with Cybert and LeNoble, receiving a $7.8 million purchase price from these iconic partners. LeNoble Lumber moved from its remaining locations so construction could begin. Clinton Housing also received a city capital subsidy of $7 million along with a nominal purchase price from the city for two dollars, to make the $61,000,000 development a reality.

“When we buy buildings from the City of New York, we buy them for a dollar per lot, and there were two lots here, so it was two dollars,” Restuccia explained. “In exchange, we are keeping the housing there affordable for a very long time. It is unique here because instead of 30 years like most buildings get, we will have an 80-year affordability restriction.”

“Buying it for nothing and being able to sell these development rights to the adjacent owner brought in the money so the development could be built, and allowed us to make this building work for a range of incomes,” said Restuccia.  “That, combined with the equity from two long-term commercial partners — LeNoble and Cybert — means that we’re bringing a hell of a lot of money to this.”

Cybert Tire bides time in a temporary location until their new garage — complete with a car elevator — is ready. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

Getting Commercial Tenants on Board
 “We’ve built affordable housing, but the main issue is how to do it without screwing long-term commercial tenants,” Restuccia noted. “The toughest one to accommodate was this huge lumber company, which had six different locations. But Clinton Housing went to them and they agreed to vacate their premises and move offsite temporarily, and then come back when their permanent space was ready. It was a huge help because then everything could proceed, with LeNoble getting 2,500 square feet for their lumber business.”

A year later, they made a similar deal with Cybert Tire (established in 1916), moving them from their old location — now the site of the Irish Arts Center — to a temporary location while their new garage was being built.

It took Clinton Housing some time to put together their application for CB4, Noland recalled. At the time, Cybert Tire’s 11th Ave. location, which had been in city-ownership since its site was condemned by the City as part of the Clinton Urban Renewal Area (CURA) in 1969, was being considered as a possible site for the expansion of the Irish Arts Center.

“Both the auto shop and the arts center were neighborhood assets. The community didn’t want to lose Cybert, but it wanted a new Irish Arts Center,” Noland said. “In good old Hell’s Kitchen fashion, CHDC sat everybody down and worked out a solution. Cybert agreed to relocate to a brand new shop at 540 West 53rd Street so the Irish Arts Center could build a state-of-the-art facility on Eleventh Avenue. In addition, CHDC was able to carve out three new community gardens in the area.”

For all intents and purposes, 540 W. 53rd St. will now be split into three discrete units: one for LeNoble Lumber, one for Cybert Tire, and one “unit” that comprises the 13-story, 102-unit affordable housing development.

“These commercial tenants will help provide the subsidy needed for the affordable housing,” Restuccia said, adding, “Cybert Tire will even get a car elevator built right through the building. Instead of fighting and trying to evict people, you negotiate an agreement and you get a better outcome in the end.”

The kitchens are complete with marble countertops and stainless steel appliances. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

This publication’s recent walkthrough of the property, now in its final months of construction, reveals that this money has been well-spent. The spacious apartments feature multiple closets, marble countertops, wood floors, and stainless steel appliances(microwave, dishwasher, refrigerator), and huge, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant bathrooms and hallways. They will also offer a penthouse level featuring laundry facilities, a fitness room, a children’s playroom and a rooftop terrace featuring a children’s splash pad and an observation deck with a skyline view overlooking the river.

“What’s crazy is people don’t expect affordable housing to look this good, but there’s no reason it can’t look this good and stay within the budget,” said Restuccia. “When people say ‘it’s too nice,’ that makes me nuts!”

When Clinton Housing rejected Taconic’s original move for a glass tower, they instead sat down with the City Planning Commission (DCP) to look at a wide variety of brick options with a metal and glass setback on the top, so that it looks like two buildings that have been expanded over time, rather than something that is heavy and oppressive when viewed from the sidewalk. These setbacks also allowed for both individual and public terraces to be built.

The facade required huge arches to accommodate garage entrances for LeNoble Lumber and Cybert Tire, and they had to blast deep into the bedrock to build the sub-basement space for these commercial tenants.

Finally, they addressed the issue of open space. There was an existing community garden to the east and some extra space between the buildings, so Clinton Housing decided to double it in size with an adjoining inside space that residents can rent for special events. And just so tenants won’t have to negotiate their way into the building among cars and trucks unloading, Clinton Housing has built an entryway through this bucolic community garden.

This mission is in line with New York City’s original mandate for this parcel of land, mapped within the former CURA in August 1969, which focused on providing for a range of income bands in housing that exhibited good design in terms of privacy, light, air, and open space.

“These goals have been the focus of community and CB4 efforts in the neighborhood for five decades,” Noland said. “CHDC and its partners’ development on West 53rd Street is an outward symbol of the community’s aspirations and its achievement of the CURA goals. And, it must be added, visible proof that an affordable housing development can be extremely handsome and appropriately contextual with the neighborhood architectural fabric.”

Designers have created expansive garage bays for LeNoble Lumber and Cybert Tire. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

Most Income Levels Welcomed
It will come as welcome news that these amenities are available to a wide array of income levels. Restuccia said this was the first city-sponsored building in a long time with no breaks or gaps in Area Median Income (AMI). For example, most 80/20 affordable units are available for either very low income families, or high-earning market rate renters. So if you are making more than $38 to $62K per year, you won’t be able to afford either.

In other “affordable” housing lotteries, the AMI is either 50, 60, 80, or 100 percent, leaving what are called a multiple “donut holes” in the middle, where people make too much to qualify for the low-income units, but not enough for the moderate or market-rate units.

“Imagine going through the entire housing lottery process, only to be knocked because you make $500 to $1,000 too much,” said Restuccia. “It happens all the time. So we strived for this one to have a broad range of incomes, to make sure that everyone who applied would at least be eligible.”

Restuccia said nearly everyone within the stated income ranges will be eligible. They will start the application process on Dec. 7, and will do interviews for all units from Jan. through May 2019.

Said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, “I am thrilled to see years of hard work coming to fruition with over 100 new units of affordable housing in Hell’s Kitchen. This process was rooted in community involvement and this project will provide a healthy mix of income bands that will benefit a wide variety of New Yorkers. This project is a model for how affordable housing should be built that is within the context of the neighborhood and represents the priorities of the local community.”

Restuccia noted that they are expecting tens of thousands of applications, but people who live in Community District 4, from 14th to 59th Sts. between Sixth Ave. and the Hudson River will be given a 50 percent preference. This is a city-wide process, and all you have to do is press a button to begin the process.

“We do lots of projects and sometimes what you see is not what you get, but this project exceeded my expectations because it is so well done,” Restuccia said. “We started in 2004 and finished getting approval in 2014, closed the project in 2015 and are finishing construction in 2018. It was such a complicated thing, including $3 million in additional costs for the basement rock removal, because we needed such a huge cellar for LeNoble Lumber and Cybert Tires. But sometimes when things cost a little more, they are worth it.”

For more information and to apply, visit 540w53.com.

These huge archways will serve as commercial entrances for the businesses. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

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