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Port Chester Sustainable Alliance calls for public to use its leverage
Starwood Capital Group must use United Hospital fund by mid-2017

November 23, 2016

The fate of the former United Hospital site in Port Chester is still unknown, but village residents and experts weighed in on what they believe needs to be done for the village and the proposed project to thrive on Thursday, Nov. 17 at the Knights of Columbus Hall.

Among those experts were State Senator George Latimer who opened and closed the forum, Ben Bennett, a senior associate at Port Chester Sustainable Alliance, Richard Hyman, a Port Chester resident and housing expert, Dave Hancock, the Consultant to the City of New York on Apprenticeships and Project Labor Agreements, and Celene Betancur, a Port Chester resident and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3. They all discussed the future of the site as well as the possibility of affordable housing units and apprenticeship programs.

Latimer made it known that Port Chester is “a community of great diversity, so there’s a lot of different people who have a lot of ideas about what greatness means.”

“This is the major league gateway to Port Chester,” he continued. “If there was ever an opportunity to take advantage of a moment, this is that opportunity.”

“The people of Port Chester have leverage,” the senator concluded. “Do you understand the leverage that you have and are you willing to use the leverage you have? This is the opportunity of a lifetime in this community.”

Love it or list it?

Bennett discussed the possibility of Starwood Capital Group, the current owner of the site, flipping or selling the property.

“Starwood Capital Group doesn’t seem like they’re going to build this project either, even though they own it,” Bennett said. “It seems to be their strategy as of 2014 to get this property rezoned so that a larger property can be built there.”

Rezoning could increase the value of the land before Starwood sells it to another developer, he explained.

The Starwood fund involved in the former United Hospital site amounts to $1.5 billion, Bennett said. That fund is made up of about 20 different investors, including the New York State Teacher Retirement Fund, AIG Life Insurance, and the Walt Disney Company Retirement Program. The $1.5 billion must be liquidated by mid-2017.

“We shouldn’t let Starwood play any Mickey Mouse games with Port Chester,” Bennett said.

But to Bennett, it’s more than the fact that this is a money venture for Starwood, it’s that they cleared out the residents of 999 High St. and most of those people could not afford to stay in Port Chester. Hyman said that they only know of three families who stayed in 10573.

“They moved all of those people out of there and they aren’t even going to build there,” he said. “They moved all of those people out of there just to make the property more buyable.”

“The Village if Port Chester should push back on a developer that acts like that,” Bennett concluded.

If Bennett is correct with his assumption that Starwood is going to sell the property after it is rezoned, he warned that Port Chester citizens will lose a lot of their leverage.

“We need to get some policies in place that apply to all developments in Port Chester and the Starwood project and we need to get it now,” Bennett urged. “We need to get Starwood to agree to certain things. If we’re correct in our assessment that they’re going to sell it, by the time they sell it, it will already be too late.”

Affordable housing availability

Hyman’s talk was all about building affordable housing on the site because Starwood has proposed none, he explained. The company is proposing 730 housing units of which 230 are for seniors. The rest of the units are supposed to be for millennials and empty-nesters and the property is not supposed to bring in any families or children, Hyman said.

In addition to the apartments, there is 100,000 to 200,000 square feet set aside for retail use and medical wellness offices and additional space is dedicated to a 120- to 150-unit hotel.

“Port Chester needs affordable housing,” he said. “It needs an additional 244 affordable units.” But only 34 units have been built, said Hyman.

He went on to cite the rent at The Mariner, a relatively new apartment complex in Port Chester. A one-bedroom, 852-square-foot apartment goes for $2,336-$3,471 per month, depending on the unit’s location and if it has a balcony. This does not include utilities, parking or pet fees.

To compare, the federal government says a one-bedroom space should cost between $1,000 and 1,200 per month to be considered affordable, Hyman said.

Therefore, the housing expert calls for Port Chester to require developers to set aside 10 percent of all residential units in multi-family buildings in all zoning districts as affordable. And because Starwood got rid of so many units and is tearing down what Hyman called a “perfectly good building,” it should set aside at least 20 percent of its planned housing units as affordable.

It isn’t known how affordable housing would affect Starwood’s profits – Hyman stated that he has asked Starwood representatives but has never received an answer.

Moderator and Port Chester resident Joan Grangenois-Thomas added that “Port Chester just needs housing that we can afford, particularly with millennials. A lot of the housing in Port Chester is old. It either needs to come down or needs to be refurbished.”

“We need to find a way to keep our millennials here if they want to,” she said. “We want to make sure we are creating a future for our young people and make sure we have affordable housing for them.”

To ensure that all zoning districts allowing multi-family housing have a percentage of affordable units, Hyman said to talk with the Board of Trustees and make it known that this is what village residents want.

Apprenticeship programs

This section of the forum wasn’t focusing on just creating temporary construction jobs, but permanent careers.

“We’re looking at a project with tremendous problems, but also tremendous potential,” Hancock said.

He and Betancur want Starwood to establish a pre-apprenticeship and an apprenticeship program for the construction of the new site and buildings.

“Port Chester Sustainable Alliance is trying to shape what development looks like in this community for generations to come,” Hancock said.

“The community has tremendous leverage to make sure that not just this project, but all mega projects create real opportunities,” he added.

This would all be privately funded and would not cost taxpayers a dime, he explained.

Betancur went through an apprenticeship program and eventually bought a house in Port Chester and found security in the career she created with IBEW Local 3. After serving five years in the U.S. Navy as an aircraft mechanic and working for a time in that field, her workload began to decline immensely. She decided to go back to New York and had the opportunity to become an IBEW member. They put her through five years of college where she worked all day, studied all night, all while taking care of her two kids and her mother.

“It is amazing to not just say I have a job, but I have a career,” Betancur said. “I’m involved in my community. Apprenticeship programs teach you how to be a part of your own community, how to volunteer, how to get to know your residents.”

She explained that apprenticeship programs often attract lines that are five blocks long when applications are open. For women in IBEW, they get to skip these lines and are placed right into the available programs.

Members of the Port Chester Sustainable Alliance will be attending the Port Chester Board of Trustees special meeting on the Starwood project at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29 in the Senior Center at 220 Grace Church St.

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