The controversy over building affordable housing in Westchester is about to undergo another painful round as the village of Chappaqua considers revisions to plans for a development on an industrial parcel sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the parkway.
On one side are outspoken residents who want their affluent town and village to become more diverse. On the other are critics with safety, aesthetic and environmental issues. Led by local architect William Spade, the critics have submitted hundreds of petition signatures against the proposal for a new building that would sit on a dead-end street bound on either end by Metro-North's Harlem Line train station tracks and the Saw Mill River Parkway.
The latest submission for the project, known as Chappaqua Station, is under review by the town of New Castle, which encompasses the village of Chappaqua. The developer, affordable housing specialist Conifer LLC of Rochester, will discuss recent changes during a public hearing at North Castle Town Hall on Dec. 11.
Conifer is seeking a special permit to allow construction of a 36-unit, 16,950-square-foot apartment building that will take up the entire .34-acre parcel at 54 Hunts Place.
"The opposition is well-organized and playing a game of not-in-my-backyard," said longtime resident Andi Gray, a business consultant. Gray said she has four employees under the age of 30 who cannot afford to live in Westchester and could benefit from affordable housing. "Having another 70 people living in downtown Chappaqua would be great for the merchants. Other towns have learned to build up their train corridor and we should learn to do the same."
The project was initiated by New Castle, which invited Conifer to pitch a proposal in December 2010. In January 2011, the town board wrote a glowing letter to the state citing "enthusiastic support" for Conifer, helping the developer obtain the tax breaks it needed to go forward. In the letter, New Castle also mentioned its commitment to comply with a 2009 federal consent decree requiring the county to build affordable residences to settle a housing discrimination lawsuit.
While New Castle supervisor Susan Carpenter told Newsday that she is "very much in support of affordable housing," the location has proved to be "a difficult site" for accommodating 36 units, 25 of them one-bedroom apartments and nine two-bedrooms.
"But we continue to be willing to look very carefully at this project . . . it has to work its way through the system," Carpenter said.
After three public hearings, Conifer is now proposing a development that is mostly three stories high, with a limited, four-story section over a handful of duplex, two-bedroom apartments. There is also a community room, a landscaped terrace, a porch and stone work along the foundation. The property will provide 40 parking spaces -- one per apartment with four guest spaces. Since the project is barely 500 feet from the train station, the train parking lot will be available during weekends and off-hours.
"This project stands out," said Conifer vice president Andy Bowdewes. "It's the first substantial project proposed in what is considered an A-list community in the settlement agreement." He explained that the company intends to ensure the proposal's quality by staying on as the property manager. "It needs to be upkept and managed like any other market-rate community," he said.
Though there are other rental apartments near the train tracks, some residents at past public hearings have charged that the project is in a relatively remote location that will stigmatize its tenants.
"The whole idea is not to have housing that isolates people . . . It's a classic example of how Westchester, throughout this process, has sought to undermine the requirements of the consent decree," said Craig Gurian, head of the Anti-Discrimination Center, the Manhattan-based organization behind the affordable housing lawsuit.
The consent decree, which is a settlement negotiated with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, requires Westchester to build 750 affordable housing units in predominantly white communities. While County Executive Rob Astortino maintains he is in compliance -- which is debated by critics -- he has objected to requirements that landlords accept Section 8 vouchers as rent payments and the call for the county to dismantle exclusionary zoning laws in its towns and villages.
Astorino spokesman Ned McCormack dismissed Gurian's criticism.
"This company has been a model of urban planning and design," McCormack said. "It's very similar to other projects along the railroad lines that are going for hundreds of thousands of dollars which are within walking distance of the town and shops. You don't need a car to live there."
If the town board eventually approves a special permit that allows the project to proceed, Conifer would move on to obtaining building permits and begin working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to arrange for the cleanup of the industrial site, according to town planner Sabrina Charney Hull.
Conifer is in the process for the long haul, Bowdewes said.
"We're interested and willing to work with the community to do whatever we can to provide very high quality, affordable housing for a community that has a tremendous need for it," Bowdewes said.
The Dec. 11 hearing will be at 7:45 p.m., New Castle Town Hall, 200 S. Greeley Ave.