UPDATE: On November 29, 2016, the City Council voted 49-0 to approve the Lambert Houses application with modification. The approved application now includes the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing option with deep affordability—half of the apartments will now be affordable for those making 30 percent or less of the average median income. The City has committed $12.3 million for infrastructure improvements in the West Farms area, including the construction of two new schools in the area—adding at least 500 new school seats to the school district. Of the project, City Council Member Ritchie Torres said, “It will offer deeper affordability, significant infrastructure improvements and community upgrades that will benefit all of the residents of the West Farms neighborhood in the Bronx.”
Three City Council members scolded HPD for the agency’s failure to plan for the stress new affordable housing developments place on the City’s infrastructure—notably schools. On October 19, 2016, the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises heard testimony over the proposed redevelopment of the Lambert Houses—a mixed-use, affordable housing development in the West Farms neighborhood of the Bronx. A joint application submitted by the City and Phipps Houses would facilitate the redevelopment. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development submitted an application for an Urban Development Action Area designation, project approval and the disposition of the City property. The owner of the property, an affiliate of Phipps Houses, submitted an application for a zoning map amendment, two special permits, a zoning text amendment, a Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Area designation, and a city map amendment.
Currently Lambert Houses consists of 14 residential buildings—containing 728 Section 8 units—and a commercial complex set on top of approximately 14 acres of land. Constructed in the early 1970s, the site is composed of six megastructures on superblocks with 14 addresses and 42 means of entry and egress. The development was built as part of the 1969 Bronx Park South Urban Renewal Plan which has since expired. The development is part of a Large Scale Residential Development area which includes the New York Housing Authority’s 1010 East 178th Street development, the New York Association of Catholic Homes’ and Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation’s West Farms Square development.
The City property to be disposed of is a large sidewalk corner at Boston Road and Tremont Avenue. The corner was part of the 1969 Renewal Plan and slated to be cut off for a right turn lane for traffic traveling west on Tremont Avenue, however, it was never constructed.
The redeveloped Lambert Houses would consist of 13 buildings containing approximately 1,665 residential units. The project would also construct 61,000 square feet of retail space, 110 accessory parking spaces on the roof of the retail space, and possibly a new public school. If built, the School Construction Authority will have the option to acquire land for a nominal consideration to build a new elementary school with approximately 500 seats. If SCA does not purchase the land, Phipps Houses would have the option to construct a five-story residential building containing 55 more housing units.
Bronx Community Board 6 voted 14-7 to approve the application. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. also recommended approval. The City Planning Commission found the proposed redevelopment to be appropriate and issued its report on September 21, 2016.
At the October 19th hearing, Ted Weinstein, HPD’s director of Bronx planning, and Adam Weinstein, President and CEO of Phipps Houses, presented the application to the subcommittee. Ted Weinstein stressed the importance of the redevelopment for the community, the Bronx and the City. Adam Weinstein began his presentation by noting that Lambert Houses would be one of the largest development projects he had been involved in, which made sense to him because he believed that Lambert Houses was “designed wrong, conceived wrong, financed wrong, tenanted wrong, built wrong, plumbed wrong, secured wrong, but other than that it’s a perfect project.”
Following the presentation, Chair Donovan Richards questioned how Phipps intended to address the relocation of the current residents of Lambert Houses. Adam Weinstein responded that Lambert Houses is not near full capacity and that since the redevelopment would be done in phases, after the construction of the first new building almost all of the current residents would be moved into that building. Adam Weinstein added that the key to relocation is customer service—from information to care. There will be a website with up to date information on relocation and a person whose sole job will be handling any issues which would arise with relocation. Those that refuse to relocate to the new Lambert Houses will receive a housing choice voucher from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Council Member Ritchie Torres, representative for the West Farms neighborhood, asked how the existing Lambert Houses is difficult to secure. Adam Weinstein explained that Lambert Houses was a reaction to the typical urban renewal plans of the 1970s which were towers and a park. It was conceived as medium density, low rise housing. Each building interconnects at fire stairs, and each building has its own entrances and egresses, therefore once entered a person has access to every floor of every building. Combined with courtyards that cannot be secured because of the fire code and top floor hallways which only have egress doors for fire safety, the existing housing development is impossible to secure.
Council Member Torres inquired how Phipps Houses intended to attract quality retailers to the new commercial spaces. Adam Weinstein answered that Phipps Houses employs a full-time real estate agent that will focus on quality credit tenants. He highlighted that the space along Boston Road would likely be for community retail and in line with the Bronx Zoo traffic which is nearby—such as a small shop, ice cream, food, etc. Adam Weinstein added that he did not want a “hang out bodega,” that was not what he was looking for. The sourcing of good users would be key. Council Member Torres followed up, asking if Phipps Houses could assure him there will be no 99 cent store or Kennedy’s Fried Chicken to which Adam Weinstein responded yes.
Council Member Torres then started a line of questioning regarding the effect the development will have on community resources. He pointed out that Lambert Houses falls under Community School District 12, Sub-district 2 which currently has an elementary school utilization rate of 124 percent and an intermediate school utilization rate of 163 percent. Council Member Torres questioned what the de Blasio administration was doing to address those current needs. Ted Weinstein, of HPD, replied that SCA has 912 new seats slated for the sub-district that have not been sited yet. Council Member Torres retorted, “It is deeply irresponsible to have a massive infusion of housing without sufficient upgrades in local infrastructure.”
“HPD likes to say that it isn’t their problem, but it is your problem,” Council Member David Greenfield chided the HPD representative. “You guys are the one that come up with the idea that says, ‘Hey let’s build more affordable housing.’ It’s your application. So, isn’t it reasonable for us to come back and say, ‘Hey, show us the infrastructure’?” Ted Weinstein responded that HPD was trying to address the affordable housing crisis. He remarked that it was not within his authority to speak on issues that fall to other agencies. Council Member Greenfield rebutted that it was a “satisfactory bureaucratic answer” to say it falls to other agencies and that for better or worse at the hearing he represented not just HPD but the administration as well. Council Member Greenfield added that, “From the point of wanting to build a school to actually building a school is a very long road.”
“We have to build out holistic communities,” Chair Richards said at the end of the hearing. “It just can’t be about housing, housing, housing, housing, and housing. We have to make sure that the infrastructure and amenities that communities need . . . are at the forefront of all conversations, especially in communities that have been disenfranchised for decades and are finally receiving investment and attention.”
On November 21, 2016, the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises voted 4-0 to approve the Lambert Houses application with modification. The approved application now includes the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing option with deep affordability—half of the apartments will now be affordable for those making 30 percent or less of the average median income. Council Member Ritchie Torres, who represents the district, said he was “pleased with the outcome of the process.” He added that he had secured in writing from the de Blasio administration millions of dollars for investments in infrastructure in the area. The money would facilitate, among other infrastructure improvements, the construction of two new schools in the area—adding at least 500 new school seats to the school district.
CC: Lambert Houses (LU 0482-2016; 0483-2016; 0484-2016; 0485-2016; 0486-2016; 0487-2016; 0488-2016).
By: Jonathon Sizemore (Jonathon is the CityLaw Fellow, author for www.CityLandNYC.org, and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2016).