By Colette Connolly
Achieving a perfectly balanced housing market in Chappaqua and indeed throughout much of Westchester County is an issue that policy makers have wrestled with for years. The subject has taken on new importance for residents in Chappaqua as the New Castle Town Board reviews an application for a 4-story, 36-unit affordable housing complex on Hunts Lane.
The proposed development, known as Chappaqua Station, was formally submitted to the town in early February. At that time, the developer, Rochester-based Conifer Realty LLC, submitted plans for a 5-story residential complex. However, a growing number of opponents in town say the proposed development is out of character for the hamlet.
Opponents say the property, which formerly served as a storage site for feed and fuel and most recently was used as a construction staging area for renovation of the Rte. 120 bridge to the south, is contaminated, making it unsuitable for residential use. Opponents also say it is zoned for industrial use only and would need to be rezoned for residential construction purposes, an often lengthy and sometimes complicated process.
Other concerns include the size of the structure that opponents say is too large for a one-third acre site as well as its close proximity to the Saw Mill River Parkway and the Metro North Railroad. Traffic concerns are also high on the list of objections, in addition to the fact that the local fire department may not have adequate access to the building.
Westchester’s Desegregation Pact
One has to look to the county’s landmark settlement reached with the Anti-Discrimination Center in 2009 to understand the significance of this latest dispute. The agreement settled a lawsuit that claimed Westchester was negligent in producing an adequate number of affordable housing units, especially in its predominantly white communities.
The agreement called for the county to spend more than $50 million of its own money, in addition to other funds, to build or acquire 750 homes or apartments, 630 of which must be provided in towns and villages where black residents constitute 3 percent or less of the population and Hispanic residents make up less than 7 percent. The other 120 spaces must meet different criteria for cost and ethnic concentration.
Rushing to Judgment
“It’s not like somebody is holding a gun to their heads to build this affordable housing development,” notes Robert Greenstein, a vocal opponent of the project, who was heavily involved in the Chappaqua Crossing development process. That complex is currently located on the former Reader’s Digest property.
The developer, Summit/Greenfield, is suing the Town of New Castle for creating what it described as a “sham project approval process,” making it impossible for the developer to obtain the required approvals for the project.
In fact, Greenstein, an attorney in New York City, believes the town is rushing to judgment in an effort to satisfy the county’s desegregation obligations. “I think the town board would say (in response to those who oppose the plan) that there are no other options available.”
Greenstein said it’s not a legal requirement of the town, per se, but “to the degree that the county is not successful, they will be obligated to answer to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and to the Department of Justice as to why local municipalities are not enabling these various affordable housing projects.” That alone, added Greenstein, may be why the town feels pressured to go ahead with such a plan.
Objections to the Proposal
Vocal opponent William Spade, an architect, and a member of the group, Chappaqua For Responsible Affordable Housing (CFRAH), agrees with Greenstein and see a proposed project that “does not make sense.” In many ways, Spade believes the board is not considering the needs of residents who will surely occupy the building, if approved, and their resulting quality of life.
Spade notes that the proposed development does not include plans for a green space or a playground for children to play in, not to mention the noise pollution from southbound trains. “This is such a horrible place for people to live in,” said Spade. “You couldn’t pick a worse place for a residential location.”
Joan Corwin, owner of Chappaqua Transportation, which operates a bus fleet on Hunts Lane, is concerned about the additional traffic resulting from such a development. A lifelong proponent of road safety and a bus driver most of her life, Corwin is doubly worried because the proposed location would be close to a dangerous curve, a hazard to pedestrians, she said. There is also the possibility of an additional school bus stop close to the Saw Mill River Parkway exit ramp, which Corwin said is not in the interests of the children who will use it.
“With the diesel fumes from the trains and pollution from cars, it doesn’t seem like a practical place to put a building like that,” said Corwin. The planning board and Conifer Realty have both agreed to produce traffic studies in response to such criticism.
Both Spade and Greenstein, in addition to other supporters of affordable housing in Chappaqua, are wholeheartedly behind the idea of providing moderately priced housing in the area. They feel it would comply with the agreement’s vision of a “fully integrated society,” one they say could be achieved by constructing a property somewhere else in town that includes, for example, mixed-use housing.
“I think what we need here is the type of leadership that sees the broader perspectives of this, not some seat-of-the-pants decision making,” said Spade, adding there’s a “lack of a master plan” that would more successfully blend affordable housing developments with the remainder of the community.
Matt Egan, who is also a member of the CFRAH, said he was shocked when he first saw the drawings of the development. “The first tiny renderings of the building made it look like a little cottage,” said Egan, “but when I saw the scale and bulk of the building, I was upset by it.” Egan, an advertising executive, believes the issue is an uncomfortable one for many. “But you can oppose this without opposing an affordable housing development,” he added. “We believe there’s a better way, and we will find it.”
In recent weeks, some alternatives have been put forth. At a town board meeting in April, Wallace Toscano, a local architect, unveiled plans for an affordable housing complex on the 1.5-acre wooded strip between town hall and the slightly lower commuter parking lot roadway, and another 1.3-acre wooded strip that sits at the far south end of the commuter parking lot.
Toscano argued during his presentation that the open green space would make for a more “humane” environment for prospective residents. Parking would be available at the nearby town hall parking facilities, in addition to a play area for children.
Spade has similar plans for alternative affordable housing developments, also in the downtown area.
Careful Review Promised by Town
In response to the many criticisms that have been voiced over the past few months, New Castle Supervisor Susan Carpenter wants to remind residents that the review process is still in the early stages.
“We have a legal obligation to process this according to the laws and procedures of the town,” she said. “A lot of the requirements have yet to be meet, and if the applicant does not meet them, the application will not be approved. If they do meet all of those requirements, then the town will do what the town is legally obligated to do.”
Responding to criticism that perhaps the town is acting under pressure, Carpenter said the Conifer project is the first one to appear before town planning officials. “The town has made it clear for years that it is very interested in promoting diversity….but developers have a right too, just like any other landowner in the Town of Newcastle. We can’t ignore somebody else’s interests, but we also don’t intend to approve a project that doesn’t meet the requirements of the town.”
Responding to the Critics
In response to critics of the proposed plan, Andy Bodewes, Conifer’s vice president,
said he “appreciates comments from people in the community,”adding that such remarks would be taken seriously by the company. “It is a benefit to Conifer that members of the community are concerned,” added Bodewes. “We like to invest in communities where people care and are involved.”
Referring to statements by Toscano at a May 8 town board meeting, where Toscano said it was time to look for positives in the plan, Bodewes added, “While Mr. Toscano has been a critic of our design, we are pleased that he found our changes to be very helpful.”
The presentation came on the heels of a letter submitted to Town Supervisor Susan Carpenter from Conifer’s attorney, Alfred Delbello, dated May 2. The letter stated that 25 sets of revised plans were being submitted to the town. They included revised site plans, parking level plans, first, second and third floor plans, elevations, and more.
The modifications submitted to the town are in response to the “various comments received from the planning board, the architectural review board and members of the public at various meetings over the last two months,” said Delbello, in his correspondence with the town.
Details of the Revised Plan
Those changes include a revised plan submitted by Bodewes that maintains the same amount of units (24 one-bedroom apartments and 12 two-bedroom apartments), but reduces the building by one floor and extends its north end by 45 feet. Other modifications include changes to the front of the building, from a brick face to stone veneer, a detail that would compliment the stone used on the new Quaker Street bridge.The style of the building has also been amended to reflect the architectural styles of adjacent structures, in addition to some residential details such as bay style windows.
Peter Davidson, also a CFRAH member who attended the meeting, said the plan is still not a workable one. “I feel that location-wise it’s a bad choice, not to mention the fact that the aesthetics are terrible,” he said.
The Town’s Concerns
In a letter dated April 30 to Conifer Realty from the town’s attorney, Clinton B. Smith of Wormers, Kiely, Galef & Jacobs, LLC., the town asked that the developer complete and submit a special permit application form, a revised environmental assessment form and a plan for “management and maintenance of the units.” In addition, Smith requested that they submit a zoning compliance chart, evaluate visitor parking needs and on-site and off-site availability in detail on a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week basis.
Other issues raised in the letter concerned the condition of soil contamination on the site and a remediation plan to deal with that, the need for a storm water management plan, air and noise quality measures that the developer intends to use to protect building residents, transportation-related issues, energy and sustainability measures it intends to incorporate, public health and safety concerns, how the building will affect the character of the community, and its utilities plans.
Bodewes said Conifer is currently going through the special use permit process, as required by the workforce housing legislation passed by the town board in June of 2010. That law was written to accommodate such a development on this particular site, he explained. “I think this is an extremely unique opportunity to provide housing that is transit-oriented, near a train station, has services and amenities, and that’s affordable,” noted Bodewes.
The proposed Chappaqua development, he added, is no different from other market-rate properties built in Scarsdale and Bronxville, referring specifically to The Avalon apartments across the street from the Bronxville train station. Bodewes added that the Hunts Lane property would offer a significantly lower rent per apartment to prospective residents. “This is the type of housing that people are paying lots of money to live in at market-level prices. Why wouldn’t it be a great spot to live in?”
Regarding the community’s environmental concerns, Bodewes said the company is working with the Department of Environmental Conservation to ensure the site is clean and will be cleaned up as part of the proposed construction. Representatives of Conifer have also met with the Chappaqua Fire Department. Bodewes believes they will be more “favorable to the revised plan based on the shorter building and the flatter roof,” which would be more advantageous to firefighters tackling a building fire.
Spade is still confident that town officials will reconsider other options. But, like other residents who favor the creation of a more holistic affordable housing plan, he regrets that New Castle, like other similar communities in Westchester, did not tackle the issue years ago. “From now on, town officials need to think about it, plan it, figure out the appropriate places for an affordable housing development and then implement solutions after that thoughtful process.”
Colette Connolly is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to Examiner Media publications. She is also the owner of Connolly Communications, a copywriting and p.r. firm. She resides in Bronxville, New York.