The Feiner Report
GREENBURGH, NY — October 18, 2019 — Today, the town received $600,000 from Marathon Development. They plan to build 74 units of senior citizen affordable homes on the campus of Westchester Community College – renovating the abandoned WestHELP homeless shelter. This is a positive development for the town. I thought that readers would be interested in learning more about the history of Westhelp and the successes and disappointments that led to today’s good news story.
What makes us so happy is that after nearly 8 years of vacancy, Marathon Properties, a developer of affordable housing, has agreed to develop the former homeless shelter and provide senior citizens with a good quality of life within walking distance of the college campus. Unlike other developments the school district, town, county, developer, and neighborhood association worked together and came up with an agreement that is good for everyone!
This property previously was the subject of substantial controversy. After real significant and vehement opposition to the Westhelp homeless shelter in the 1980s, the town and Mayfair Knollwood civic association developed a close working relationship. The history of this project is a study in social, political and fiscal victories and defeats which I will attempt to outline below.
In 1988 I represented the Mayfair Knollwood section of Greenburgh on the Board of Legislators. At that time Westchester’s government was spending millions a year to house homeless families and individuals in very expensive and often run down hotels and motels. Every hotel in Westchester was rented out for the homeless -including some of the most expensive hotels in Westchester like the Hilton and Arrowwood. The village of Elmsford, according to a page one story in the New York Times was called the homeless capital “Quirk of Geography Turns Town To Homeless Capital (January 17, 1989)
Andrew Cuomo, the son of NYS Governor Mario Cuomo, announced plans to develop transitional housing for the homeless within town. Initially there was substantial neighborhood opposition. The county and town approved the 108 unit shelter . Under the WestHELP initiative homeless mothers and their children would receive training and day care for young children. The shelter was built in 1990 on six acres of county owned land next to Westchester Community College.
The shelter caused few problems and at the end of 10 years the shelter was scheduled to close, as part of the original agreement.
Westhelp asked the town for permission to renew their lease for another 10 years. Some of the neighbors initially opposed renewal because a promise was made to close the shelter after 10 years but in the end of the program they voted to support the continuation of the program.
A VICTORY: The Mayfair Knollwood Civic Association, the Town, County, WestHelp and I had months of community discussion and dialogue. We all came together. We reached an agreement that included $1,200,000 in annual fees to the town and specifically to the community and school district. Everyone agreed that the agreement would last for 10 years. There was a vote of residents who attended the meeting and as the New York Times article highlighted the community overwhelmingly voted to keep the homeless shelter opened. How many other communities anywhere vote to place a homeless shelter in their backyard? Very few, and the Mayfair/Knollwood community should be recognized for their prudent approach to this matter.
When the second agreement was nearing it’s end I received notification from the administration of former Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano that they would like to begin discussions on renewing the lease. I got back to the County and also contacted the civic association–hoping to negotiate an even better agreement for the Town, neighborhood and school district.
A DEFEAT: Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino was elected County Executive, replacing Andrew Spano. His administration determined that there was not adequate need for the facility and defunded this important program. This was a devastating blow for the concept of transitional housing for the homeless as well as a fiscal blow to the town. I sent numerous letters trying to dissuade the Astorino administration from closing the shelter. I was unsuccessful.
A DEFEAT: In 2013 the town was able to identify what we believed to be an excellent candidate for the site- a facility to serve severely developmentally disabled persons. We reached an agreement with Ferncliff Manor, a school in Yonkers that desperately needed a new home for severely disabled developmental children. The town was offered $500,000 a year in rent. The neighborhood supported the proposed use. 10 of the 17 members of the Westchester County Board of Legislators also supported that use –a proposal to give Ferncliff Manor a 50 year lease on the six acre WestHelp location.
According to an article written by Milt Hoffman, former editorial page editor of the Journal News on March 23rd, 2013 in 1989 the County promised to lease the property to the Town of Greenburgh for 30 years. “The place would be used for transitional housing for seniors, municipal workers or whoever Greenburgh chooses.” Some Legislators interpreted, according to Mr. Hoffman, the agreement “rigidly. They want the property to be used only for affordable housing, even though Greenburgh not only has provided such housing but is very racially diverse town and is not on the list of predominantly white Westchester towns that were ordered by the federal government to build 750 homes open to all.” The town felt that the property should be used to serve another of society’s needs- the developmentally disabled. The state rejected funding for the project. Those who disagreed with the town, including some Greenburgh residents, thought that it made no sense to demolish a beautiful complex.
We issued Request For Proposals (RFPs) for the development of affordable housing developers. Towards the end of 2013 I was chatting with Mark Soja of Marathon developers. Marathon manages 90 and 100 Manhattan Ave and 33 Oak Street. I asked Mark if he would be interested in converting WestHELP into affordable senior citizen housing. He was very open to the idea. Mark spent years meeting with neighbors, the school district, the county and town. He secured the funding necessary to build senior housing at the campus. Although it took a long time to achieve this result, we appreciate the fact that everyone has been working together. A special thank you to the Mayfair Knollwood Civic Association for their partnership. Today’s good result is in large part thanks to their help.
This will be a win-win for everyone.
Greenburgh Town Supervisor
Article published by the New York Times ... Mayfair Knollwood Civic Association Votes to Support Renewal of Homeless Shelter: