By Bill Parry
City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) shot down a controversial plan by Phipps Houses to build The Barnett, a ten-story, 209-unit residential building with 100 percent mixed-income affordable housing before Community Board 2 was scheduled to vote on the development this week. Phipps, a non-profit developer, needed a zoning change to build on a parking lot it owns at 50-25 Barnett Ave.
The lot, on the northern edge of Sunnyside Gardens between the Long Island Rail Road and the Phipps Gardens Apartments, is currently zoned for manufacturing.
“I’ve been very clear from the start. I have very serious concerns about this project that I’ve shared with everyone involved,” Van Bramer said. “While I’ve had serious concerns for a long time, I wanted to give Phipps the opportunity to build support and amend their project after hearing feedback from the community. However, Phipps has not, in any meaningful way, attempted to negotiate or amend the plan to address community concerns. Phipps has not built local or community support for the project. They haven’t seriously addressed concerns about height, income levels, community facilities or amenities”
Van Bramer’s decision may doom the project since City Council protocol follows the recommendation of the local representative. The de Blasio administration, caught in an affordable housing crisis, is not ready to give up on The Barnett.
“Phipps Houses is early in their public approval process,” de Blasio spokesman Austin Finan said. “We expect they will continue conversations with all local stakeholders as the project moves through ULURP.”
Van Bramer believes it’s fair to say the mayor and Commissioner Vicki Been of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development would like to see the project proceed.
“I fully believe we need more affordable housing and have demonstrated this support many times, but this does not mean that every project is the right one or in the right location,” Van Bramer said. “In the face of opposition, Phipps has been unwilling to make any meaningful changes.”
A Sunnyside Gardens resident himself, Van Bramer said he got more feedback from residents and neighbors than any other issue in his 6 1/2 years on the City Council.
“I had intended to allow the land use process to unfold, and to allow the community board the opportunity to weigh in before I voiced my opinion,” Van Bramer said. “At the land use committee meeting, however, CB 2 Chair Pat O’Brien and members of the committee intimated that it was important for them to know where I stood as part of their decision-making process. When I heard that, I realized that it was time for me to make my position clear. Given all these concerns, I cannot support this proposed project.”
Phipps Houses President and CEO Adam Weinstein responded.
“We firmly believe that the land-use review process works best in its entirety, as it’s specifically designed to do,” Weinstein said. “Toward the end of that process, we’ll take stock of what we’ve heard and assess what changes we can realistically make. While we’re disappointed to see the Council member’s most recent comments, we remain hopeful that we can work together to take advantage of this opportunity: to develop a 100 percent affordable building in the heart of Sunnyside geared toward middle-income residents, and to address the genuine affordability crisis faced by so many in the community.”
Van Bramer had a parting shot for the developer.
“In November, I co-hosted a town hall meeting with Community Board 2, at which residents voiced serious apprehensions about the project,” he said. “Phipps already manages the Phipps Gardens Apartments across the street from the proposed site of the Barnett and have not always done right by their tenants. While I was aware of some issues with their management, I was dismayed by how many complaints existing tenants registered against Phipps, both at this town hall and subsequent town halls. Before we allow Phipps to build more rental units in the neighborhood, they need to get right with the people who pay them rent today.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr