2016-05-25 / Front Page

Phipps Houses Construction Site Draws Crowd At Sunnyside Meeting

By Thomas Cogan

The proposed development of the property at 50-25 Barnett Ave. by the Phipps Houses group got another hearing a week ago.  The meeting, held at Sunnyside Community Services on 39th Street proved to be a twin to the meeting held in late October at Phipps Garden Apartments of Sunnyside, on 39th Avenue between 50th and 52nd Streets, backing on Barnett Avenue.  The occasion for the latest meeting was an application for a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Phipps Garden Apartments have stood on 39th Avenue and Barnett Avenue for 85 years.  The rear part of the 50th Street side is located directly across from the 50-25 Barnett Ave. property, which has been owned by the Phipps group since 1953.  Last week’s meeting was perhaps a little louder than the first one, since opponents of the plan, who on both occasions have outnumbered proponents, had heard the developers’ gospel once before and knew the parts where they should express their outrage.  The meeting was moderated by Patrick O’Brien, chairman of Community Board 2, who often had to call for polite and fair behavior.  The particulars of the plan sounded much the way they did in October, and while opponents still wanted it rejected and banished, one of the proponents did have to say that further moderation of it would be necessary.

The main speaker for Phipps Houses was Michael Wadman, who said that the building at 50-25 Barnett Ave. could hold up to 220 apartment units but will probably be limited to 209.  A 4,000 square foot utility space on the ground floor could be used, he suggested, for a pre-kindergarten facility.  At the front, the building will be seven or eight stories tall and in the back will rise to nine and 10 stories.  The front of the building will have setbacks from the property line of seven to 20 feet.  One result will be the conversion of a site he called “unattractive” to one that is greatly improved.  Where there is no sidewalk on the north side of Barnett Avenue the builders will make one 15 feet wide, he said.  The building will rise on space that currently contains than 200 parking spots, but their elimination will be mitigated by the likelihood that no more than half the residents would need parking, he said, provoking laughter and catcalls. 

He continued, saying that noise from the nearby tracks of the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak would necessitate noise-attenuating windows in the building.  He turned to the rental structure and said that 20 percent of the housing would be for tenants earning 50 percent of area median income (AMI), running between $29,000-40,000 annually.  Thirty percent would be for those at 100 percent of AMI, making between $54,000-94,000 annually; and 50 percent would be for those at 130 percent of AMI, making between $67,000-148,000 annually. 

The height of the building was the basis of strong objections.  Being as many as 10 stories tall, the building would loom over the old garden apartments, even when viewed from 39th Avenue.  Wadman presented illustrations showing that the view from 39th Avenue wouldn’t be so bad, and the building’s top floors would only peek over the old building when viewed from either 51st or 52nd Street—to which the response was low, scornful growls from the audience.  The community board’s Dorothy Morehead asked him why the building couldn’t be something that respected the levels of the Phipps and Sunnyside Gardens structures built in the 1920s and 1930s.  He said that building only to the garden apartments’ four-story height simply wasn’t feasible.  The affordability bands were also questioned.  O’Brien said that 42 percent of Sunnyside would fall into the $29,000-40,000 range that the developer has limited to 20 percent of the building’s tenancy.  Adam Weinstein, president of Phipps, said this is the unfortunate “affordability doughnut hole,” which was met with more groans.  When Sam Vargas of the board asked if the construction workers would be union members, Wadman said no, setting off loud boos from a crowd containing several 32 BJ SEIU members.  He said his contractors will use union workers but in order to have affordability the developer can’t be locked into a pact with unions.

Parking, which Wadman implied would not be a great problem, really is one if the testimony in both meetings is evidence.  Michelle Quinn, a local resident, was unimpressed by Wadman’s suggestion of pre-K schooling in the finished building, saying it’s not a crying need.  What is critical is the loss of 200-plus parking spaces when 50-25 Barnett is built.  Gerald Perrin, who said he has lived in the garden apartments building for all his 82 years, also lamented the great loss of parking space and an increase in density, to the peril of infrastructure, because of a new building on narrow Barnett Avenue, “a miserable excuse for a street.”  (Dorothy Cavallo, another longtime local resident, said of the proposed building:  “It’s too darn tall on too small an avenue.”)

The lonely proponents, all local residents, also spoke.  Jenna Brienes liked the Phipps affordability plan and asked opponents to work to improve the current proposal but don’t reject it altogether.  Lou Venech said that fears of gentrification and displacement of local residents because of consequent rent rises are overblown.  He also said that rent levels and the size of affordability belts were largely out of any developer’s hands, being matters determined by city housing bureaucrats.  He concluded however that the project as he sees it will need several adjustments.  Dietmar Detering said that the city is growing and Sunnyside must accept growth and the increased density that comes with it—though he heard cries of “Why?” in response.

Other issues came up.  A woman said the ground that would be dug up in laying the foundation for the building is full of industrial toxins that have accumulated for decades.  Weinstein answered that the site is overseen by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.  The Barnett Avenue building is the Phipps group’s 16th project and Weinstein, having become familiar with brownfields and other environmental problems, said he would certainly be aware of any of them in this instance.  Someone asked if the proposed housing would include facilities for seniors.  There were grumbles when he said it wouldn’t, so he said that Phipps has built excellent senior housing elsewhere, but for this project and place it would not be feasible. 

A man from the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance said that if this “massive” apartment building goes up in what is a light manufacturing zone, such nearby companies as Steve Madden, the clothing manufacturer he called “the largest employer in Woodside,” would be driven to relocate.  A woman who said she had to give up living in Long Island City because of rising rents called all the affordability talk insincere.  She suggested that the parties from Phipps and Community Board 2 were simply putting on an act and that the building plan was “a done deal” they were agreed to.  O’Brien became quite angry at that, saying he understood the woman’s accusation was “rooted in frustration” but was nevertheless “baseless.”

He said the next step was for the board to conduct votes on acceptance or rejection of the Phipps plan:  the first by the land use committee at its meeting, Thursday, May 26, 7:00 p.m. at the CB 2 office, 43-22 50th St. in Woodside; then by the full board at its monthly meeting, Tuesday, June 2, 7:00 p.m., right back at Sunnyside Community Services, 43-31 39th St. in Sunnyside.  He encouraged all interested to attend.

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