Nycha’s Rad Move in Chelsea
By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
NYCHA residents of the Chelsea /Elliott/Fulton Houses had until May 20 to vote on their preference for redevelopment options for their neighborhoods. These Houses have about 3,000 residents, although there is no accurate count, since NYCHA does not know how many infants, children, or guests may reside there. A skeptic may say that it doesn’t matter, since the powers-that-be will do whatever they want no matter how you vote. But presentations at the Elliott Chelsea Tenant Association offices may change your mind.
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
NYCHA desperately needs to raise money to improve the housing conditions for thousands of residents currently residing in the Elliott Chelsea Houses, mostly post-war 1960s mid-to-high rises. As you may know, the federal HUD-sponsored housing has not gotten sufficient subsidies to pay for adequate maintenance (also called deferred maintenance), creating unsafe, unhealthy, dangerous conditions for many families there, whether from lead paint poisoning, leaks allowing mold to spread, pests allowed to prosper, frequent lack of heating and power or lack of security for residents. The city government does not have the funds either but has been working for years to resolve these issues. Prior to 2016, the city proposed a hybrid development plan, called NextGeneration NYCHA, to utilize the vacant land around the existing buildings for new development, that would contribute to the upkeep of NYCHA buildings. Coordinated with an Obama administration program called RAD (Rental Assistance Demonstration) that requires a long-term contract which by law must be renewed in perpetuity. RAD allows public housing authorities to leverage public and private debt and equity in order to reinvest in the public housing stock. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted in 2020, “Don’t believe the rumors and misinformation: this administration would never replace an old building until brand new apartments NYCHA rents were ready for every single resident. No one in Chelsea’s Fulton Houses should stay awake tonight worrying about losing their home.” The Adams administration has promised much the same for the other Houses as well.
WHO IS INVOLVED?
The nature of development is multi-faceted, so you need a scorecard to keep track of the players. HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) works through local entities like NYCHA (NYC Housing Authority) to provide housing assistance. The hybrid plan now proposed under RAD involves private developers chosen by the city, Related Companies partnering with Essence Development, called the Fulton/Elliott-Chelsea PACT Project (Permanent Affordable Commitment Together). PACT is a critical part of NextGeneration NYCHA, the Authority’s 10-year strategic plan to repair public housing to improve residents’ quality of life and to make major improvements to developments, while preserving long-term affordability and maintaining strong resident rights.
To coordinate this endeavor, a group called Housing Opportunities Unlimited (HOU), led by the principal of Essence, Jamal Adams, is the residents’ liaison. They held 35 public meetings for 1500 people, plus the one for this author attended by just four other residents and Darlene Waters, the Tenant Association president, that lasted two hours.
WHAT IS THE PLAN?
Depending on the outcome of the tenant vote, PACT (Related and Essence) is proposing in Option One to build new NYCHA apartments while tenants live in the old ones, except the 436 West 27th Drive tenants will be relocated to 311 Eleventh Avenue for the interim. Once all existing NYCHA families are resettled in the new NYCHA buildings, more mixed-income housing will be built on other sites. Leasing, operating and managing the development is the responsibility of the developer PACT, but they will be reporting their operations to NYCHA for review. Governance must follow NYCHA rules. Option Two only rehabs the existing NYCHA buildings, but that entails shuffling tenants in groups of apartments into temporary housing while reconstruction work goes on around other tenants in the building.
I entered the HOU meeting fully expecting to be convinced that Option Two-Rehab Existing Houses would be the ‘greenest’ and best option for the community. However, hearing and seeing the full scope of all plans convinced me that Option Two was not to the best option. Due to deferred maintenance and outdated systems, the updating of the existing buildings would indeed take longer and be more costly for the longer construction remodeling period (we compared the lengthy remodeling for Related’s 450 Washington Street market-rate project, now in its third year), and amenities would not be comparable. This will not be like the Essex Crossing/Delancey Urban Renewal project that slum-cleared huge swaths of the neighborhood with promises of moving residents into the new buildings, only to lie fallow for over 40 years, until recent construction built new residential towers. PACT has spent many months planning for contingencies, including getting elected officials to support RAD and even the proposed rezoning. They also have the resources for relocating the tenants into a market-grade apartment building nearby to start, and the contractors and engineering to provide fast, efficient demolition and reconstruction on the NYCHA sites. It promises the best outcome.
WHAT ARE THE DESIGN GUIDELINES?
Design guidelines for new construction go beyond the basics of NYCHA, FHA (Fair Housing Act) and NYC building codes. All new construction must also apply “Enterprise Green Communities” guidelines to optimize environmental resources and economize operations and “Active Design” guidelines to promote healthy lifestyle options in daily activities and amenities. A supermarket, health clinic and recreation areas are included. All designs must also be approved by HUD. Due to the deferred maintenance of the older structures, rehabbed existing buildings (Option Two) could be just as costly as new construction and wouldn’t include new energy-efficient HVAC systems or new dishwashers and residents would have to live through months or years of remodeling going on around them while they live there.
Even when non-NYCHA housing is built on these sites, 30 percent of the units must be offered as “affordable” by the city’s lottery system. Connected Communities, a Capital Projects Division of NYCHA, works to better connect residents to the surrounding neighborhoods through the design of the physical environment by using land use planning, ground floor activation, open space improvements, programming and resiliency efforts.
Alicia Glen, the former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, wrote, “We know mixed-use buildings and mixed-income neighborhoods produce better health, education and economic outcomes. That is why fully funding RAD is a far better approach than just increasing funding for public housing in its past and present form.”
Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, on the Landmarks Committee, the State Liquor Authority Committee, and Quality of Life Committee, and as assistant secretary (speaking solely in a personal, and not an official capacity), Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee.