2015-11-04 / Front Page

Two Hundred Unit Building Proposed For Property Behind Phipps Houses

By Thomas Cogan
There was a Monday evening meeting last week at the Phipps Houses in Sunnyside, where residents and others from the neighborhood looked at architectural illustrations and heard a description of the proposed 200-apartment complex that ownership would like to build on Barnett Avenue, behind Phipps Houses, the 400-apartment structure that has stood on 39th Avenue for more than 80 years.  Even before City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer could get the meeting started there was an air of opposition in the audience.  That wasn’t surprising, given much of the reaction to the project in the weeks since first reports of it were circulated.  The councilman had to ask those in opposition to control their anger please, to keep the meeting from being disrupted by shouting and heckling.  

Phipps representatives stated the case for the new buildings.  Most of the audience condemned it, though some called it a likely benefit and others suggested that the land owned by Phipps along Barnett Avenue would be better used as the site of a middle school.  The long process of community-based and citywide review is just beginning.

 The meeting was a cooperative arrangement involving the Phipps organization, Councilman Van Bramer and Community Board 2.  Adam Weinstein, chief executive officer of Phipps, introduced Herbert Mandel of MHG Architects as designer of the proposed building and surrounding grounds.  Mandel said he finds the local streets quite attractive and wants to change Barnett Street, which at present provides an unattractive measure of vacant space and a parking lot where the new housing is expected to stand.  Some of Barnett Avenue between 48th Street and Woodside Avenue has no sidewalks and Mandel said that one of the benefits of the new housing plan is a complete paving of the stretch between those main roads.  The nearest the new building would be to the curb is 20 feet and some of it would be about 40, which would leave plenty of room for the street trees that would be planted there.  The building would be partially constructed of red brick, to match the brick of the Phipps Houses, and the tallest part of the new building would not exceed their height by much.  Mantel said the new building would cast no shadow on the old houses and would be visible only to persons on Barnett Avenue.

It is publicized as affordable housing at three levels, or bands.  About 20 percent of the houses would be for the lower middle class, families whose annual earnings level would begin at about $50,000.  The middle class would comprise 30 percent of the tenant population might earn more than $100,000 annually.  The upper middle class, comprising half the tenants of the 200 or so units, might go past $150,000 a year.  Weinstein said he wants to lock in all bands at affordable rates for the long term.  When asked what the long term is, he said it should be permanent in regard to affordability.  That idea does not sit well with some people, he admitted, but Phipps is sticking to it.  Rents would rise only as the city’s rent board recognized the necessity of raising the affordability level.  In the event of tenant departure there would be no automatic increase in the rate for the next occupant. 

To build on Barnett Avenue would entail elimination of a 200-vehicle parking lot on Phipps property, though it would be replaced by garage space for 200, built into the new housing and open to drivers in the neighborhood, some of whom currently use the parking lot.  But a woman from Steve Madden, the clothing manufacturer with facilities on Barnett and Woodside Avenues, would lose 100 spaces if the parking lot were eliminated.  She wondered if that might force the company, which she said employs 500 in Woodside, to move elsewhere.  Others wondered if living in the new housing would be bearable with all those Amtrak or Long Island Railroad trains going by night and day on the nearby tracks.  Mandel said the windows would be built to baffle the sound, while the building would rest on supports meant to handle vibration well.

Perhaps the strongest objections came from those who believe the impact of several hundred new tenants would be baneful for the local quality of life.  The elevated No. 7 train, running along Roosevelt Avenue, four blocks away, is already considered overcrowded by many, who believe that an additional influx of population would convert commuting from difficult to impossible.  A woman who declared herself “completely opposed” to everything she’d heard about the Phipps plan mentioned the train service and the harsh impact the population increase would have on the Fire Department’s ability to do its job.  Another said moving vans would crowd overworked Barnett Avenue when many new tenants moved in.  The “completely opposed” woman and others looked forward unhappily to an increased battle for parking space, even without considering the doomed parking lot.  Replying generally, Weinstein said some of the worries were simply exaggerated. 

Van Bramer called for a show of hands by those against the Phipps plan.  No doubt expecting a majority, he expressed surprise nevertheless that the vote was so lopsided.  But the first person to speak after the vote was a neighbor of his in Sunnyside who found the opposition shortsighted.  He said that this housing proposal should be considered not so much an issue as an opportunity.  He assured the meeting that the presumed problems of commuting and neighborhood services would be confronted and probably ameliorated in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that must occur when the plan is thoroughly evaluated by several city agencies.

The drive to build housing in the city is matched by the drive to build schools.  If there was a strong feeling that housing on Barnett Avenue, as proposed by the Phipps officials, is impractical, the idea of a school there was attractive to some, if only because it would displace the Phipps plan for housing.  A woman expressed anger that her son has to go a long way to school in Long Island City when it would be better if he had only to go a short way to school in Sunnyside.  Another woman said that Phipps should sell the land on which it would build housing to the Board of Education, so it could plan a school.  (The general preference was for a middle school.)   Weinstein said Phipps had made an offer to the BOE but the board declined it, perhaps believing that a fleet of school buses in and out of Barnett Avenue twice a day—not to speak of parents’ vehicles—was truly impractical.

Relatively early in the meeting, Councilman Van Bramer said he was not committed to the Phipps housing plan, nor was he against it. Later he said the meeting was vital to help him make up his mind, but he remained non-committal.  It doesn’t seem additional meetings would be much different from this one, though.







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