Nov. 19, 2020 By Christian Murray
A non-profit development group that seeks to build a 7-story affordable housing complex in Sunnyside came under heavy fire at a public hearing Wednesday night.
Phipps Houses, which owns and manages the Phipps Gardens Apartment complex in Sunnyside, was lambasted at the hearing by its existing tenants after presenting its plan to build a 167-unit building at 50-25 Barnett Avenue.
Approximate 40 people spoke at the hearing with very few complaints about the proposed 7-story building. Instead, the developer was subject to a barrage of criticism about it existing Phipps Gardens Apartment complex at 51-01 39th Ave., which many argued had fallen into disrepair and was poorly managed.
Phipps needs the Barnett Avenue site to be rezoned from a manufacturing use to residential in order for it to develop the new building. Many speakers said the city should block its rezoning application based on how it manages its existing 472-unit complex, which is located across the street from the planned site.
“I live in the Phipps Garden Apartments,” said Mary Ann Joyce at the hearing, which was held via webex. “They have let the building become an eye sore…and I don’t know why we should reward these people by allowing them to build another building.”
Joyce said the garden areas have fallen into disrepair, the interior walls have been damaged by flooding and there is an extreme lack of communication between the property manager and tenants.
Many speakers criticized Phipps over its Gardens complex, citing garbage, mice and cockroach problems. Several people said the organization didn’t deserve to manage another building in the area.
“The biggest issue is trust…and there is little to no reason that they can be trusted with another building,” said one speaker.
Residents also criticized Phipps for its 11th place ranking in the The 2019 Worst Evictors list in New York City, which was based on data collected by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. Phipps evicted 71 tenants across its nearly 6,000-unit portfolio last year, according to the report.
The application by Phipps to rezone its 50-25 Barnett Ave. site comes four years after it abandoned a more ambitious rezoning plan for the site after facing fierce community opposition.
The plan in 2016 called for a 10-story structure with 208 units. The project was also 100 percent affordable but with income requirements set at higher Area Median Income (AMI) levels.
Four years ago, the plan was criticized for being too big, with the income levels too high. Many also expressed concern at the time that the project would cause parking problems for existing residents since the development is planned to go up on an empty lot that contains 223 parking spaces.
But hardly any one spoke about those issues Wednesday, with many complimenting Phipps for reducing the scale of the project to seven stories and lowering the income requirements for the affordable units.
In fact, Phipps, to some people’s liking, said that it was prepared to lower the income levels further upon community request.
Evan Sweet, a Sunnyside resident, said the new plan showed that Phipps was dedicated to its mission of bringing quality affordable housing to Sunnyside and Woodside. He said he supports the plan and said that the development of affordable housing made much more sense than leaving the site as a parking lot.
Several speakers said that an affordable housing development was a better use of the site than a parking lot–and welcomed the concept.
However, just like four years ago, Phipps was criticized for the way it manages its existing Gardens complex.
One speaker said that nothing has changed in the past four years and was incredulous as to why Phipps would come back seeking a rezoning yet again without fixing its existing complex first.
The hearing Wednesday, organized by Community Board 2, was required as part of the rezoning application process—formally known as ULURP.
The process takes about seven months and Community Board 2 gets to weigh in on the rezoning application by providing an advisory opinion. The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Dec. 3.
The plans will then go to the Queens Borough president’s office for another advisory opinion before the City Planning Commission and City Council vote on it.
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who participated in the hearing, called on Phipps to explain what was behind the litany of complaints.
“Most of the comments haven’t been about the affordability [of the units] or the new building but about the existing Phipps Gardens Apartments and the maintenance issues,” he said.
Lisa Deller, Community Board 2 Chair, also asked Phipps to respond to these complaints.
“Forty people have testified tonight and the majority of those who spoke discussed maintenance issues,” Deller said.
The representatives of Phipps expressed surprise as to the onslaught of criticism.
Sarah Ellmore, director of planning for Phipps Houses, said that the organization had spent more than $3 million on improvements and repairs to the Gardens complex since 2017 years. The improvements/repairs, she said, included roof replacement, masonry work, garden upgrades, lobby painting and bicycle racks.
She also said that the organization did a survey of residents who live at the Phipps Gardens Apartments and found that 72 percent of the 179 tenants who responded said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their overall experience at the complex.
She said that 81 percent of the respondents also said that they would recommend the complex to a friend.
Another representative for Phipps said that demand for the apartments is high, and noted that 452 of the 472 units are either rent stabilized or rent controlled.
Michael Wadman, vice president for Phipps, was asked at the hearing whether the complaints were baseless.
He said he was surprised by what he had heard but noted that the number of tenants who spoke at the hearing only represented a small percentage of the 472 families that occupy the apartments.
“It doesn’t look to me like it’s rundown…like some of the people have described tonight,” Wadman said.
He said that there are always going to be people who are not happy because they had a bad experience or an issue that was not resolved in a manner to their liking.
“It is impossible to have 472 families who love their building all at the same time,” he said.