NEW YORK, N.Y. — Affordable housing and affordable parking are at odds in Manhattan Valley, a neighborhood of mostly pre-war, low-rise buildings in the northeast corner of the Upper West Side.

Fliers stuffed under windshields of parked cars along 109th Street between Columbus and Manhattan avenues one recent afternoon warned: “This Street Parking Space Will Disappear Soon If You Don’t Act,” and went on to encourage the car owners to sign an online petition to prevent “this out-of-control development.”

At issue is a proposed project for West 108th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues by the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing (WSFSSH) that calls for the demolition of three city-owned parking garages on the block, along with two 19th century buildings that currently house WSFSSH’s 92-bed Valley Lodge transitional shelter for seniors, operating since 1988. In their place would be two 11-story facilities that expand the shelter to 110 beds and add 194 permanent apartments for low-income individuals and families.

Most would agree that New York needs more housing for seniors and low-income residents, and WSFSSH has a positive track record of building and managing such facilities across the Upper West Side. It currently runs 24. But the nonprofit is facing neighborhood opposition.

NEW YORK, N.Y., SEPTEMBER 20, 2016. Save Manhattan Valley flier on the windshield of a car along West 109th Street. The group is against an affordable housing development on the block that will demolish three parking garages. 09/20/2016. Photo by Donna M. Airoldi
NEW YORK, N.Y., SEPTEMBER 20, 2016. Save Manhattan Valley flier on the windshield of a car along West 109th Street. The group is against an affordable housing development on the block that will demolish three parking garages. 09/20/2016. Photo by Donna M. Airoldi

The group Save Manhattan Valley (SMV) is behind the fliers on the cars and the petition to halt the project – it has about 1,500 signatures currently with the hope of 2,000 by the end of September – saying WSFSSH is not taking the needs of the neighborhood into consideration. It’s a coalition of individuals and community groups that came together after a March 16 Community Board 7 meeting where the project was discussed and caused concern among several of the hundreds of residents in the audience.

To make their voices heard, SMV created a website, Facebook page and Twitter account, and hired Michael Hiller, a land-use zoning and preservationist lawyer. One co-founder, Meryl Zegarek, and other members of the group also set up a folding table and chairs on the corner of Broadway and 108th on weekends to inform locals of the proposed development and encourage them to write letters to local politicians.

“We’re a working-class community and people use [the garages] to commute and merchants’ customers and hospital workers park there,” said Zegarek. “Before the March meeting, they never investigated who uses those garages, and to show how little they know about the community, the didn’t know four ambulances park there for free.”

WSFSSH executive director Paul Freitag explained that the garages, owned by the city, have always been earmarked for development and the residents have been enjoying subsidized parking that would eventually end anyway. A parking study WSFSSH commissioned shows there are 666 monthly users in the three garages currently paying $343-385 per month, and goes on to list 23 other garages in the neighborhood with monthly rates of $350-$769, with an average cost of $482. But it does not include the number of available spaces in the other garages.

Still, to compensate, the organization agreed to make spaces available for three of the ambulances and to keep the garage closest to Columbus Avenue, with 125 spaces, open during the construction of the first building before going ahead with plans for the second building. It also looked into adding parking beneath the buildings, but the expense of blasting through the bedrock made it fiscally unfeasible.

NEW YORK, N.Y. Rendering of the new senior and affordable housing project proposed for 108th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues by the West Side Federation for Senior & Supportive Housing. Photo courtesty of WSFSSH
NEW YORK, N.Y. Rendering of the new senior and affordable housing project proposed for 108th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues by the West Side Federation for Senior & Supportive Housing. Photo courtesy of WSFSSH

But that did not satisfy SMV. The group is equally if not more worried about the environmental impact of the project. First is the exemption request from R8B zoning and its seven-story restriction. Then there’s the construction noise, asbestos from the teardowns, shadows cast across neighboring school yards and playgrounds, and the expanded carbon footprint that will result in more cars on the streets looking for parking, double parking, congestion, increased traffic accidents and increased risks to pedestrians, said the attorney Hiller.

“We’re going from seven to 11 stories. We’re not building skyscrapers,” countered Freitag, adding that his organization has redesigned the building to gradually rise, with the tallest sections of the building to be set back from the street.

WSFSSH also provided a list of six meetings it has had with various community groups, and Freitag said they would continue to be transparent and compromise where possible during the pre-development stages while the necessary Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) was under way.

The other, more controversial concern, though, is SMV argues the area already has more than its fair share of supportive housing.

“We make up just 15 percent of the population of the Upper West Side, but we have close to 50 percent of its affordable housing projects,” Zegarek said.

Freitag was nearly incensed when asked about this.

“There’s a crisis at all levels of housing,” he said. “Fair Share is a legal term that typically refers to waste transfer stations and incinerators. Truly noxious use in a neighborhood. The idea that someone would say high-quality housing for low-income people should be limited is bordering on outrageous.”

Hiller said the desired goal of SMV is “not to defeat supporting or senior housing or interfere with the city’s efforts to help people. The object is to preserve the community and environment and make sure people have quality of life. That children are protected and safe.”

But it may already be too late to save the character of the neighborhood. Local businesses have been feeling a loss of customers due to infrastructure construction that has closed street parking on the eastern stretch of Columbus Avenue south of 110th Street for several blocks, as well as onto 108th Street, for nearly a year.

NEW YORK, N.Y., SEPTEMBER 20, 2016. El Rey de la Caridad and the blocked off parking in front of the restaurant at 973 Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. The owner is concerned about losing the three parking garages around the corner on 108th Street. 09/20/2016. Photo by Donna M. Airoldi
NEW YORK, N.Y., SEPTEMBER 20, 2016. El Rey de la Caridad and the blocked off parking in front of the restaurant at 973 Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. The owner is concerned about losing the three parking garages around the corner on 108th Street. 09/20/2016. Photo by Donna M. Airoldi

“Many times you can’t park nearby. I’ve asked the garages for discounts for customers and they said no,” said Jose Oaivares of the Caribbean-American restaurant El Rey de la Caridad, which he’s owned since 1989 — and where you can still get a lunch special of rice, beans, chicken and a can of soda for $6.50. “There are not enough spaces on the street. It’s a problem. You can park on Sundays, but there are 10 churches in the area. What about families that want to visit?”

Danny Feliz, manager of the Los Muchachos de Santana Barber Shop on the block north of 108th Street agreed. “Parking is really tight. Customers and workers drive and come in from New Jersey, the Bronx, Connecticut. There’s no space. But we need both [parking and housing]. It should be 50/50; they gotta think about others in the neighborhood.”

Both men said they worry they won’t be able to stay in business much longer, and in addition to the lack of parking they cite a changing neighborhood. Feliz is grateful the area is much safer than its violent days in the 1980s and ‘90s when it was nicknamed Crack Alley, but they also see gentrification creeping in and pushing out traditional residents — even though Census numbers don’t support this: Households earning less than $25,000 per year remained relatively steady from 2010 (1,594) to 2014 (1,570), while those earning more than $100,000 decreased from 440 to 403.

Still, “the Spanish and minority community is moving,” Oaivares said in a near-empty restaurant during an evening dinner hour. “Everything is too expensive. Investors are pushing people to the Bronx. I own the building, and it’s still too hard.”

Pat Iglarsh, owner of Iglarsh Hardware Store on Amsterdam north of 108th Street, is one of the few mom-and-pop businesses left on a street where they were “up and down both sides 30 years ago,” he said. “There was no such thing as box stores like Duane Reade and Subway. There’s no way for people to make a living [owning a business here] anymore.”

As if bearing witness, several storefronts along Columbus and Amsterdam sat empty, while at 110th Street and Manhattan Avenue is an attractive new 22-story doorman building — with a Starbuck’s on the ground floor. There is no parking available.

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