What Killed the Affordable Housing Proposal in Irvington? The Developer Responds
By Alexander Roberts–
In an exclusive interview with The Hudson Independent, one of Westchester’s most successful affordable housing developers was philosophical about his company’s decision to pull out of a multi-family project proposed last April to Irvington. After 25 completed projects in the county, working collaboratively with stakeholders and at times overcoming withering opposition from neighbors with quiet, behind the scenes patience and compromise, Wilder Balter Properties (WBP) president Bill Balter says that his company’s withdrawal could present the village with a teachable moment.
Previous Failure to Develop North Broadway
WBP’s decision not to proceed with the 58-unit project at 76 North Broadway followed a previous failure in 2016 of a proposal by Brightview Senior Living to build an assisted-living facility on an adjacent piece of property. Initially given a favorable reception by the Irvington Board of Trustees, Brightview spent 20 months and an estimated $1 million before giving up in frustration. Then-property owner Jerry Carrafiello asked the Irvington Board of Trustees, “Why’d you waste this community’s time?” While that would seem to present a cautionary tale for future developers, Bill Balter, whom I have known and even collaborated with at the nonprofit housing agency I founded, has sufficient experience to objectively assess his chances of success early on, and if necessary, calmly cut his losses.
After the Brightview debacle, Irvington rezoned the area containing both properties for mixed use, including multifamily housing. That stretch of North Broadway has ample land capable of filling a significant need in the village for affordable housing for seniors and young families. While the existing property has an old mansion that connects to a 70’s era office building and a large, paved parking lot, WBP proposed building parking under the structure in order to reduce the visual impact to the adjacent residential neighborhood. The 58 units had mostly one and two-bedroom apartments, which would have added less than 25 children to the school system, or just 1.4% of its current 1,741 student total. The increased traffic generated by 58 units would have been modest, even by Westchester standards. But in the most exclusive areas of Westchester County, facts like these don’t matter to adjacent property owners who see any increased density as a threat to property values.
It became clear to WBP that, notwithstanding the scarcity of affordable housing in Irvington and the company’s track record of building well-regarded affordable housing in other affluent communities, such as Lewisboro, Larchmont and New Castle, some of the property’s immediate neighbors were lawyering up, preparing to fight this development every step of the way.
Their weapon of choice is the State Environmental Quality Review or SEQR, which is often employed to delay and drain developers of financial resources. Even if a developer wins approval, opponents have the option of bringing a so-called Article 78 proceeding, alleging in court that the process was “arbitrary and capricious.” This can easily delay construction of an approved site for 1½ to 2½ years. WBP went through this process in Lewisboro, where the company endured a three-year approval process plus a so-called “NIMBY (‘Not In My Backyard”) lawsuit that by itself delayed construction by almost two years.
A vulnerability in the law
When Irvington crafted its new zoning, Mayor Brian Smith said it would “send a clear message to the development community that Irvington welcomes diversification of its housing stock.” WBP introduced its plan, said Balter, “because the village made a sincere attempt to craft a law that would accomplish the goal of producing affordable housing, while trying to accommodate the legitimate concerns of the adjacent property owners.”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “The Trustees included elements in the zoning that basically required any proposal to prove that it would not create any additional delay on the already busy North Broadway. At 58 apartments, the additional car trips would of course add some delay, and WBP was concerned that these circumstances, when combined with the neighbor opposition, would result in a lengthy and uncertain outcome at the Planning Board, which is tasked to evaluate all proposals under the statute.”
For example, the new zoning law lists several requirements, including one that says a proposal, “…will not result in an unmitigated significant adverse traffic impact at any of the intersections identified by the Planning Board.”
Based on the regulations, WBP’s engineer said a “significant adverse traffic impact” could be interpreted as adding as little as ten feet to the queue of buses that currently transport Irvington students to and from school.
Peter Bernstein, a village resident and a leader of a progressive group of citizens known as the Irvington Activists, expressed disappointment with the developer’s decision to withdraw in a statement to The Hudson Independent: “It’s sad that the developer of new multi-family housing was scared away by NIMBY pressure. Westchester has a severe housing crisis and Irvington is becoming less and less affordable. We are also one of the least diverse municipalities in the County. The proposed project would have produced a greater level of economic and racial diversity in our Village.”
Unlike Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, with state laws giving developers leverage against villages that have not done their fair share of affordable housing, developers in New York must look very carefully to determine their likelihood of success. Balter anticipated in this case that flaws in the new Irvington zoning law made the outcome of potential litigation uncertain, and the project too risky.
“So many communities and their residents,” Balter said, “have woken up to the reality of the need for affordable workforce and other multi-family housing. We have to prioritize our efforts where we can have a productive dialogue that produces results.”
“We are currently building seven developments, including four in Westchester: in New Rochelle, Peekskill, Lewisboro and Tarrytown,” Balter continued, “and in 2023 we are starting a great affordable development in Edgemont.”
The way forward for affordable housing in Irvington
After WBP withdrew, Mayor Brian Smith signaled his disappointment in an interview with The Hudson Independent, saying he hoped for a “post mortem” from the developer on what might have tipped the balance in favor of staying with the project.
Asked for his reaction, Balter replied, “The path to success for developing multifamily housing in Irvington is for the Village Board of Trustees to do their own traffic study on the build-out of the multifamily zoning they passed. From there, the updated law would spell out what is, and what is not acceptable.”
Alexander Roberts is a member of the Tarrytown Housing Affordability Task Force and is the founder and CEO Emeritus of Community Housing Innovations, a nonprofit housing provider based in White Plains.Read or leave a comment on this story...