Thursday, September 11, 2008

Some in Area Concerned About Avalon Diversity

Some in Area Concerned About Avalon Diversity
By Lydia Wileden

Stretching up into the sky, its glass walls reflecting the sun, Avalon Morningside Park is hard to miss.

Despite sitting like a shining beacon at the corner of 110th Street and Morningside Drive, the newly finished apartment complex has long been shrouded in controversy. When the project first broke ground in early 2007, over 1,300 signatures were gathered from local residents opposing the development. Today, the building’s neighbors wonder what place the ritzy building, which stands in stark contrast to nearby aging buildings, has in a neighborhood struggling to retain its economic diversity.

Avalon Morningside’s 296 rental units sit on the property of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. According to the St. John’s Web site, the property was obtained through a 99-year lease between St. John’s and AvalonBay Communities, Inc., a real estate investment trust. The lease, signed in 2006, permits Avalon to build and manage a 20-story residential rental property filled with a mix of studio, one-, two-, and three- bedroom apartments.

Carolyn Kent, chair of Community Board 9’s Parks and Landmarks Committee, led the charge against the building originally, and vowed in 2007 to “work against the construction of such an inappropriate building.” Kent said that Avalon is inappropriate for the neighborhood both because of the proportion of “luxury housing, and in its architectural design.”

Kent’s concerns about the building being unaffordable for local residents only increased as the building was completed. St. John’s stipulated that Avalon must include some affordable housing units in their lease contract.

What has become particularly contentious is how Avalon will meet the criteria of the New York City Housing Development Corporation 80/20 Program. The program, as described in an HDC term sheet, issues loans “for projects where at least 20% of the units are affordable to low and moderate-income households.” The remaining 80 percent of units may be set at market levels and rented to households of any income.

In keeping with the 80/20 guidelines, Avalon has set aside 59 apartments to exist as affordable housing. Yet who these apartments are available to is unclear. While the program stipulates maximum rent levels and minimum square footage, it does not mandate how many people may live in each space.

Management at Avalon Morningside Park did not respond to requests for comment.According to information on the building from St. John’s, preference for the 59 units “will be given to working individuals and families in the surrounding neighborhood.”

According to an HDC press release, the building will receive “$100 million in tax-exempt bonds.” The affordable housing units will also be supported by the church’s Housing Mission Fund that will contribute $200,000 annually.

According to the agreement with St. John’s, AvalonBay will give back to the community in other ways, playing an important role in helping rebuild some crumbling features of the church.

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As the Chairman of Community Board 9 Manhattan from 2004 to December 31, 2007 I feel compelled to clarify that Ms. Carolyn Kents activities regarding the Cathedral were carried out strictly in her private capacity and as part of the Morningside Historic Preservation organization and NEVER as Chair of the CB9M Landmarks Committee.

The Cathedral's project was an "as of right" project and CB9M had nothing to say about it.
I have met on several occasions with the Dean James Kowalski who explained the financial situation of the Church Cathedral and the need to develop their properties.

I also met with opponents in the Community and asked how many were members of the Church Cathedral - no one was.

As my suggestion that if the opposers wanted to help the Church Catedral not to develop their property they should do fund-raisers for the Church Cathedral I received a mute "you must be crazy" look and not further communtications ensued.

As a cradle Episcopalian I privately and personally have supported the plans moved ahead by Dean Kowalski.

I believe the community will benefit by the mixed income population.

Now as far as the allocation of the affordable units half will go the CB9M residents and the other half to residents of CB7M adjacent directly south. All this information was made available at the CB9M July 08 Housing Committee Meeting which I now Chair.

My personal and private comments for your benefit.

J. Reyes-Montblanc11 Sept 2008

Posted by: anonymous (not verified) September 11th, 2008 @ 6:07pm

If critics are truly interested in "economic diversity" -- as they claim to and should be -- then the Avalon building is actually a great thing for the neighborhood. If the ideal is having a diverse range of incomes, then higher-income people are needed in the area to balance out a disproportionately high population of low-income and working-class individuals.

Personally, I would never pay that much in rent (even if I could), but obviously some do. I think it's a good thing that they will be contributing to the local economy, and an especially good thing that this development will provide an income stream to support the renovation and expansion of the Cathedral of St. John Divine, which is just on the other side of the park from where I live in Harlem.

If they're saying that the 59 "low income" units weren't allocated using a proper lottery system, then that is a valid criticism. If it is handled in accordance with HPD standards, however, here again I fail to see the issue.

As for aesthetics, I, for one, find the building to be rather striking in appearance. Perhaps I'm more architecturally open-minded than your average community naysayer...

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