Volume 76, Number 51 | May 16 -22, 2007

High Line, housing advocates fear missing the train

By Albert Amateau

Advocates for affordable housing and supporters of the High Line packed a public presentation last week on the city’s and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s guidelines for a mega-mixed-use development over the West Side rail yards.

Affordable housing advocates were disappointed and angry at what they considered a paltry suggestion by the city’s Hudson Yards Development Corporation that 20 percent of rental units would be affordable on the site that extends between 10th and 12th Aves. from 30th to 33rd Sts.

Advocates for preserving the northern segment of the High Line viaduct, which loops around the yard at 30th St. from 10th to 12th Aves. and back to 33rd St., were not quite satisfied when the M.T.A.’s Bill Wheeler said, “The city and the M.T.A. support retaining the High Line.” Wheeler, the M.T.A.’s director of special project development and planning, went on to say there are pros and cons on whether to preserve that segment of the historic structure or replace it with a new one. A decision will have to be based on an assessment of the High Line’s impact on the site’s developer, Wheeler said.

The 1.1-million-square-foot rail yards are really two sites. The Eastern Yards between 10th and 11th Aves. were rezoned two years ago to accommodate new development to be built on a proposed platform over the M.T.A. tracks. The Western Yards between 11th and 12th Aves. is where the city wanted but failed to get a football stadium because of intense opposition from West Side residents and elected officials.

Housing advocates who spoke at the May 8 presentation reminded officials that they helped sink the stadium proposal, and they promised to fight anything that does not provide for enough affordable housing.

“We need permanent affordable housing,” said Sarah Desmond, executive director of Housing Conservation Coordinators, a nonprofit West Side organization. The conventional 80 percent market rate and 20 percent affordable program that the city proposes for rental apartment buildings is time-limited and lasts 20 to 30 years, Desmond noted. “That means we’ll be left with all market-rate housing,” she said. “We need 30 percent and it has to be permanently affordable,” she added.

“The only way we’re going to get affordable housing is if the city mandates it in the request for proposals and makes it permanent,” said Miguel Acevedo, a member of Community Board 4. He was referring to a formal request for proposals, or R.F.P., on the rail yards project that the development corporation hopes to complete and send to developers by the end of May.

Neighbors contended that 20 percent of rental housing would not yield much because they assumed that most residential development on the platforms would be condos rather than rental.

“We need housing for all the people — for working people and artists — not just Wall St. investment bankers,” said Tony Simone, a C.B. 4 member. “We want a West Side renaissance, not a real estate dream,” he added.

During the technical presentation, project engineers noted that the platforms would have to be built without interrupting rail operations below and would have to support 60-story buildings.

“It’s very much a balancing act,” said Wheeler.

However, Joe Restuccia, a C.B. 4 member, said the presentation failed to indicate “the gargantuan scale” of development.

“There will be 60-story buildings on 11th Ave., and 90 stories could be built on part of the site,” Restuccia said. “The value created will be enormous and we should capture part of it for affordable housing — and there is still no commitment to keep the High Line,” Restuccia added.

Regina Meyer, who outlined the 80/20 affordable housing possibilities for above the rail yards, said the city is exploring two off-site locations for middle- and lower-income apartments, one on W. 54th St. and the other on W. 48th St. She also said the project would include a public elementary/intermediate school and would provide space for nonprofit and arts organizations.

However, J.D. Noland, a Clinton resident and C.B. 4 member, said the neighborhood had been promised a park on the W. 48th St. site where a shaft for the city’s Third Water Tunnel is under construction.

“Aren’t they setting up [48th St.] for affordable housing because they don’t want it over the rail yards?” Noland asked.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said he believed the city would heed a community that successfully fought the stadium.

“The plan must include permanent affordable housing and it must keep the High Line,” Stringer said. He emphasized that infrastructure details and community uses should be included in the R.F.P. “We don’t want the next generation of residents to say, ‘Who didn’t build that school,’” he added.

Joshua Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, the group that convinced the Bloomberg administration to convert the derelict rail viaduct into an elevated park, thanked the M.T.A. for its expression of support, but added that the Friends would continue to press for keeping the historic structure.

Hammond pointed to a placard in the audience with a quotation by the late critic Ada Louise Huxtable, which read: “We will probably be judged not by the monuments that we build but by the monuments we destroy.”

Although the R.F.P. will not be issued for about three weeks, several developers, including Vornado Realty Trust, The Related Companies, Brookfield Properties, Tishman Speyer and the Durst Organization, are already preparing proposals based on the guidelines.

The structural engineer for the Hudson Yards Development Corporation noted that the rail yards were built to provide space for footings that would support two platforms with total space larger that Rockefeller Center for future development. But the challenge for developers will be enormous.

There is room for columns 24 inches thick at 50-foot intervals, except where the Amtrak tunnel enters from the west where the interval is 80 feet. The platform would support the central open plaza but the tall buildings would have to be built as close as possible directly above the columns.

Bedrock is 30 feet below the tracks at the east end of the Eastern Yards, but the bed slopes down to 120 feet below the tracks on the west side of the Western Yards, according to the presentation.

The bottom of the platforms must be at least 25 feet above the tracks for train and equipment clearance, and the top of the platform must be no more than 4 feet from street level at 11th and 12th Aves., in order to accommodate access to the development.

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