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Courtney Ratermen for Spectator

The Jewish Home Lifecare center on 106th Street has been the site of a persisting development controversy. In 2007, the facility was exempt from zoning laws that aimed to limit building heights because the center needed to expand to survive. But now, a switched-up development plan is changing everything.

Politicians declared on Tuesday that they would be saving 106th Street from a rising tower. But for some community activists, the announcement was two years too late. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, CC '91—who represents the Upper West Side—broke the news this week that they plan to apply jointly for a downzone on 106th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. The move would require building heights to match those of the rest of the surrounding neighborhood, which is capped at around 12 to 15 stories. For a handful of neighborhood residents, the decision was a huge victory in a zoning war they have waged for many years. For some, it also came as quite a surprise. Small community organizations joined forces back in 2007 to downzone the entire neighborhood in an effort to stop condo towers from changing the streetscape. The process of converting the area to R8A/8B regulations—which stipulate the height constraints—was a success, except for one plot of land on 106th Street. This space—occupied by the local non-profit nursing home Jewish Home Lifecare—was exempt, according to an agreement made by Mark-Viverito and Stringer just before finalizing the 2007 downzone. At the time, the nursing home claimed to need the previous, less strict zoning regulations of R72 in order to develop a new on-site facility. For the non-profit nursing home, it was a necessity. For the elected officials, it was a shaky compromise. For the leaders in the effort to downzone the area, it was a last-minute slap in the face. But in August 2009, Jewish Home Lifecare announced a new proposal for a land swap with the local developer of Park West Village, Joseph Chetrit, which would enable the nursing home to build a new facility on 100th Street while the Chetrit Group could construct condos on the 106th Street site in exchange. And this week, after a month of closed-door discussions and back-and-forth letters, local politicians announced their plan to downzone the very street that they originally exempted. The decision comes now to protect the land from any out-of-context development by Chetrit. "I am cautiously ecstatic," said Glory Ann Kerstein, president of the 106th Street Duke Ellington Boulevard Neighborhood Association, who fought for the original downzoning. "This is a victory of the citizens," she said. "At this local level, the will of the people has to prevail," added Blanca Vazquez, co-chair of the Manhattan Valley Preservation Coalition, which she formed in opposition to the JHL exemption in 2007. When Stringer and Mark-Viverito showed up to this week's Community Board 7 meeting to announce their downzoning plan, members in the room expressed joy, outrage, and a lot of uncertainty in between. For land use committee chairperson Hope Cohen, it was too late. Jumping out of her chair, she called out to Mark-Viverito, "How do you explain your behavior before? Now we have to go through the whole process again," and added, "It is inexcusable." Mark-Viverito responded, "I'll take hits, I'll take criticism—that is my responsibility," explaining that "We are trying to go back and correct the situation. I feel betrayed as well." Stringer took the floor, and began, "It is good to be back at another quiet CB7 meeting." Moving on to address Cohen's frustrations, he said of the initial exemption for JHL, "It was a close call, it was a judgment call, but it wasn't about uprooting the neighborhood." Since announcing the potential swap, JHL has requested that the nursing home be allowed to maintain the original carved-out zoning until the deal with Chetrit is finalized. In the meantime, JHL agreed to sign a restrictive declaration that binds the facility to a contextual downzone once it goes through with the swap—a move which R8A/8B supporters have said is an unfair burden on the neighborhood. In an interview on Wednesday, Stringer said that though JHL was an "integral part of community caring for elderly," anything short of an immediate downzone is not fair to the neighborhood. "You can't have your cake and eat it too," he said. "As worthy as your proposal may be there are other stakeholders in the community. It is very insensitive to think that you can be holier-than-thou in these discussions," Stringer said, adding that he expects the application process to rezone 106th Street to go smoothly. Stringer's efforts have the support of New York State Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, who represents this neighborhood. O'Donnell said he was wary of the zoning exemption from the beginning. "No one, including me, wishes Jewish Home out of the community," he noted. But considering the immediate downzone, he said, "what this plan does is gives more certainty for the community and a little more uncertainty for Jewish Home." Yet according to JHL spokesperson Ethan Geto, it is a lot more than just uncertainty. Geto argued that if the deal with Chetrit went down the drain and 106th Street were donwzoned, JHL would not be able to rebuild a new facility on site, which he said is essential to the survival of the organization. Though opponents have argued that JHL could just apply for a variance, Geto said the facility did a very thorough legal analysis that concluded a variance would not likely be granted. "We have to find a way to rebuild," he said, adding, "This step that they are taking could conceivably result in the closure of Jewish Home, which would be a disaster for the geriatric infrastructure of Manhattan." news@columbiaspectator.com

Rezoning Construction Community Board 7
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