Armory to High-Rise: Two Views of New Plan

Metropolitan Council on Housing Tenant/Inquilino | March 1993

By Rafael Sencion

In the northern end of Manhattan, a struggle has just begun that I believe is of the utmost importance to the movement that advocates decent affordable housing. I also think that the rest of the movements for change, not just the tenant movement, must keep in close touch with what is developing and offer their support and solidarity, since that is the only way we can win this struggle.

For years, the Fort Washington Armory has been used as a shelter for homeless men, an ongoing symbol of the drastic homelessness situation in New York City and the bankrupt housing policies of the Koch and Dinkins administrations. The Armory is a dual property of the State and the City of New York: state property because it was a military facility, and city property because it is located on city-owned land.

Recently, the Committee for the Heights Inwood Homeless, Inc., a community group that develops and manages low-income housing in the area, came up with’ a plan that many of those active in local issues consider a good idea. The coalition proposes a 275-unit apartment building on the Armory site for the purpose of providing permanent housing to doubled-up families in the area, along with needed essential services facilities, such as a child care center, an alternative high school and other spaces to address community needs.

A number of community groups, seeing the importance of this proposal, have given their support to the concept. They have been working together toward the idea of having a conference in early spring to make the community aware of the proposal and to make whatever recommendations we think are needed to the Committee for the Heights Inwood Homeless.

There are, however, some problems. It seems that the Washington Heights octopus, Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, has different, unannounced plans for the site and has sent its friends in high places to make their best effort to stop the coalition’s plan from becoming a reality. Community Board 12, which covers the Washington Heights/Inwood area, has been carrying on a delaying tactic and not offering support to the project, in spite of the fact that community support is so widespread. Some of the area’s elected officials have openly come out in support, others have said they support it but have not dared put it in writing.

Perhaps the plan is not perfect; in fact, I believe that some of the criticism about it is legitimate. But I don’t think that should be an excuse for us to reject it. On the contrary, I think that if there are certain aspects of it on which we agree, then we should work together around those aspects. Certainly, we all agree on the lack of housing and basic services that the community needs. If it is true that all of the community’s concerns are not going to be solved by the proposal, it is also true that it is a step in the right direction, and the things that unite us are far greater than whatever differences we may have. It is, therefore, time for us to start working together and make sure that the project becomes a reality.

Why a call for solidarity from all our allies? Historical experience tells me that every time there is an opportunity to create new housing, either to keep neighborhoods integrated or to integrate segregated neighborhoods,¬† powerful forces always emerge in opposition to create havoc. If we don’t stop those forces that are already disturbing the Fort Washington Armory Project, then we will very soon be once again reliving the experiences of Forest Hills in the 1970s and Yonkers over the last decade, where the enemies of progress tried to use every method within their reach to stop the construction of housing for area residents.

In both places, the cause of integrated, affordable housing won out in the end. In Foresst Hills, the mayor appointed a mediator to mediate between the two sides, and in Yonkers, a federal judge issued heavy fines on those legislators who violated his mandate. If we stick together, perhaps the Fort Washington Armory Project can be realized without having to wait for such intervention.

The concept of the plan, combining a full smorgasbord of social services with construction of permanent¬† residence units for families and singles formerly homeless is entirely admirable. Ellen Baxter’s track record with the 212 units she has managed to create in our area is most impressive. I have the greatest respect for her ability to rehabilitate people otherwise wasted, a task which various government programs have too often been unable to accomplish. [Ellen Baxter is executive director of the Committee for the Heights Inwood Homeless. – Ed.]

However, I believe 25 stories (on top of the four-story existing structure) and 275 apartments is just too high and too dense, threatening the security and safety of the clients and the existing residents of the block. Oscar Newman, “Defensible Space, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design,” N.Y., Collier Books, 1973, examines the severe problem of high-rise buildings for families with children in public housing projects overall. The sense of community is too diluted by large numbers of tenants, and troubled peopled fall through the cracks of the support

Remember the occasion of a fire in a high-rise just northeast of Central Park in which there were casualties due to the impossibility of evacuating the residents. Contemplate the difficulty of climbing down 29 stories of stairs with a couple of toddlers, because in cases of fire elevators cannot operate. Will school-age children have to be kept indoors because their mother cannot see them playing on the street from her window so high up?

The impact on the existing residents of 169th Street of a doubling of the population of the block, plus traffic by the 1,000 students of the alternative high school, 1,000 athletes participating in the track and running activities, 30,000 clients of the various social service agencies, with attendant bus arrivals and parking and staff parking, is really quite overwhelming.

To achieve the highly desirable goals of the program, I believe it should be scaled down to a more manageable level. Instead of a 25-story tower, a 12-story tower with 132 apartments would be much more acceptable and diminish the adverse impact. Perhaps not all of the other uses must be crowded into the existing structure. Since there is no cost for land or site acquisition, costs of construction of the housing tower should be proportional to the square footage, it seems to me, and so feasible at a lower density. If there is a high school, provision for parking for teachers should be included.

What happens to the structure after 15 years? Is this permanent low-income housing after the J-51, etc., expires? Or does it revert to the financial sponsors under some buyout plan?

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