“It is always worth exploring developments on other sites. However, they should be additional sites for housing, not alternatives, and support for additional developments should not be contingent on the outcomes of other projects.”

Adi Talwar

Lawn signs in the Bronx opposing the Just Home project. Some opponents to the proposal have called for the city to build veteran housing instead.

The SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan and 2 Howard St. Haven Green and 388 Hudson St. Just Home and veteran housing. These pairings all have one thing in common: The second option in each was proposed as a superior alternative to the former.

It’s an inevitable element of contentious projects that go through the public approval process: A sizable segment of those opposing the project at hand will coalesce around a proposal for a separate development on an alternative site they deem to be better. It is a common negotiation tactic, given the city’s housing shortage. It’s harder to take the opposition seriously, particularly in wealthier neighborhoods that don’t build housing, if they didn’t have a counterproposal that would somehow add housing.

These alternative proposals aren’t always bad options. Many of them can be fantastic. Some are concrete, like 2 Howard St., a pitch to convert an FBI parking garage into 100 percent affordable housing. Others are conceptual, like turning Just Home into a senior or veteran housing development instead of supportive housing for the formerly incarcerated. Both, however, address critical needs and shortages.

The problem is that these suggestions are usually just smoke and mirrors. They are a negotiation tactic to give the opposition legs to stand on, with their existence predicated on the opposition towards another rezoning or development. They are rarely independent plans, rarely mentioned before the primary project is conceived, and when the primary option runs its course, the support for these alternatives often fizzles out.

Take 2 Howard St. When the SoHo rezoning entered the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in 2021, there was vehement pushback from neighbors and preservationists. While opponents pitched a few alternatives, the most commonly invoked suggestion, including from local City Councilmember Christopher Marte, was 2 Howard St.

Before the rezoning, there was no substantial discussion of using 2 Howard St. for housing. Curbed did mention the site in an article examining the feasibility of the rezoning in October 2020, but framed the site as a potential element of the rezoning, not an alternative. After the rezoning passed in December 2021, public mentions of the site slowed to a trickle.

When 2 Howard St. was pitched as a development site last February, it wasn’t by anyone who opposed the rezoning. It was by Borough President Mark Levine when he released his housing plan where he identified 170-plus sites eligible for new housing. A community member did mention the site when referencing the Elizabeth Street Garden in a community meeting Mayor Eric Adams hosted in August (where Councilmember Marte was in attendance). And in September, Community Board 2 Chair Jeanine Kiely expressed interest in building on the site. But other than those instances, there has been little mention in the past two years.

Then there is 388 Hudson St., a site that the Elizabeth Street Garden and its supporters spent a decade pitching as an alternative for the Haven Green senior housing development slated to replace the garden. When the SoHo rezoning passed, outgoing Councilmember Margaret Chin announced plans to build 100 affordable units on the site.

In 2023, when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced intentions for a much larger plan for the location (a move championed by Community Board 2 and opposed by prominent figures against the SoHo rezoning), Joseph Reiver, the executive director of the Elizabeth Street Garden, and his supporters made support for it a key metric on their voter guide for the 2023 City Council primary, seeing the larger plan as a vindication of their stance that the site could support enough housing to replace Haven Green and keep the garden.

However, their support for the site has always been contingent on outcomes at the garden. In a September tweet, Reiver stated that the site was identified in 2015 (three years after the city announced plans to redevelop the then-private space on public land) specifically as an alternative, not an independent development. The garden’s fact flier, which outlines their case, spells out that the community board designated the site for housing “‘only if’ ESG is saved entirely.” Their most recent proposal sent to Mayor Adams also makes it clear 388 Hudson Street and the Garden are a package deal to them. 

Neither Reiver nor the garden has expressed whether or not they would support development at 388 Hudson St. should their legal efforts fail, and in the past eight months, the prospects of the Garden have changed. In November 2022, a state judge blocked the Haven Green development from proceeding. After more than a decade of delays and litigation, it seemed like the garden would remain after all. That was until the New York State Appellate Court reversed the decision in June. The Garden has since challenged this reversal, but its fate is now uncertain, while HPD is now pushing ahead with 388 Hudson St. 

Then there’s Just Home in the Bronx, the Fortune Society’s plan to convert Building 2 of the Jacobi Medical Center into 83 supportive housing units for medically vulnerable formerly incarcerated individuals. The proposal met staunch (and unruly) opposition from the local community, led by incoming Councilwoman Kristy Marmorato. She and many other community stakeholders have come out with a flurry of alternatives: housing for seniors, veterans, or domestic violence victims. Neighbors correctly noted that all those alternative options are in dire need in the neighborhood and across the city.

But, barring the fact that these replacement options pit two groups of vulnerable populations against each other, there is little indication of any notable push for these alternatives before Just Home’s announcement in 2022. Much like 2 Howard and 388 Hudson, the presence of these crucial alternatives was solely contingent on the presence of another development the opposition deemed inferior. Worse still, many of the same detractors of Just Home actively opposed a rezoning along Bruckner Boulevard that included senior housing that the neighborhood desperately needed. It is still to be determined if people continue to push for the alternative options after the final vote on Just Home, but given the lack of pressure for those options in its absence, the odds don’t look good.

These shifting sentiments demonstrate an unserious attitude toward solving the housing crisis. Pitting groups against each other and basing support for one project on the death of another are not things that we should tolerate, given our circumstances. These proposals are treated as pawns when they could be viable and critical solutions.

But while a bad-faith invocation of these alternatives is reprehensible, a good-faith invocation of these projects is not much better, especially if the original project gets shot down. Switching the project type or location doesn’t just immediately flip a switch. That project doesn’t suddenly get grandfathered into the ongoing approval process. A brand new clock starts. Scoping, Environmental Impact Statements, feasibility studies, and community engagement must be redone, and the time spent deliberating on the original project gets wasted. 

And these are months, if not years, that get lost. Margaret Chin announced the initial plan for 388 Hudson St. more than two years ago, and it still hasn’t formally entered ULURP yet. Just Home is slowly approaching the finish line of a similar community engagement that has been ongoing since July 2022. And all that ignores the time it takes to build these developments. These actions will delay the production of new housing in the city, and as the adage goes, housing delayed is housing denied.

It is always worth exploring developments on other sites. However, they should be additional sites for housing, not alternatives, and support for additional developments should not be contingent on the outcomes of other projects.

The city cannot afford to juggle proposals between different sites, and we must use as much space as possible to build housing. Deliberation should instead focus on improving the existing projects and getting to a position where those developments and rezonings can move forward with maximized housing output. Those modifications work within the existing framework of ULURP and don’t restart the clock.

Such proposals have value when they’re supplements to existing plans, but the minute they become alternatives, that value is undermined.

Austin Celestin is a senior at New York University studying urban planning and journalism.

Joseph Reiver, the executive director of the Elizabeth Street Garden, responded with the following comments:

“We’ve advocated since 2015 that affordable housing be built at 388 Hudson as a viable solution that could provide roughly 350-615 affordable units and preserve Elizabeth Street Garden in its entirety. From 2015 to 2021 the city neglected the 388 Hudson alternative, even saying that they couldn’t build on the site because of the water tunnel infrastructure, and so the lot sat empty for years when we could’ve had housing there by now. When Chin announced her plan of 100 units, she and her real estate supporters, including Open NY, attempted to twist the news as ‘closing off’ the alternative plan that would save the Garden. In reality, they proved us right then, by showing that they could build on the site, and they proved us right again, in now reaching a higher number of units than the initial 100 proposed.

Austin and the other members of his real estate lobbying group may base their work on tweets, but we do not. Both 388 Hudson and additional alternative sites for housing are mentioned in our proposal to Mayor Eric Adams, which is published on our website and shared with thousands of garden supporters regularly on social media and through our newsletter. Both I and other ESG volunteers have closely followed the 388 Hudson planning process,” Reiver added, “attending meetings and providing feedback and questions to HPD with a focus on permanent affordability and a higher number of units for those in need.”

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