Uptown's 'Safety City' Should Become Affordable Housing: Pols Say

download.pngBy Brendan Krisel

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, NY — Elected officials and community advocacy groups rallied Thursday morning in front of a city-owned site in Washington Heights known as "Safety City" to demand the space be converted into affordable housing.

The site, located on West 158th Street and Riverside Drive West, represents an opportunity to create a building that could house as many as 200 families at levels of affordability appropriate for the community, City Councilman Mark Levine and Borough President Gale Brewer said Thursday.

Despite the strides New York City is making in its affordable housing agenda, areas like Washington Heights have seen almost no new affordable housing construction, Levine said. In a neighborhood with thousands of families facing eviction, living doubled- and tripled-up in one home or cycling in an out of the shelter system, any opportunity to create affordable housing in Washington Heights must be taken.

"We owe it to our community to create more affordable housing," Levine said Thursday. "Affordable housing which is priced to be accessible and affordable to the people of this neighborhood, and we can do that right here on 158th Street on one of the few large undeveloped parcels anywhere in Uptown Manhattan.

The Safety City site — designed to resemble a city streetscape — is currently owned by the city Department of Transportation. The intended use of the site is to teach children how to safely cross the street, but it's rarely ever used, Levine and Brewer said Thursday.

During the Thursday morning rally, DOT employees practiced installing children's safety seats in department-owned cars. Levine called the activity a "show," that proved the site is "dramatically underutilized."

"There is collectively more action here, at this exact hour by coincidence, than any of us have seen in months and maybe years," Levine said.

The DOT disputed that the site was underutilized and called Safety City a "critical tool used as part of the de Blasio Administration's Vision Zero focus on education." The DOT said that during the school year the site is used by more than 6,000 school children and youth with disabilities.

"Among the varied programming at this well-used location, Safety City: introduces kids to safe bike riding and proper helmet use; hosts DOT's citywide car-seat fitting program; and utilizes the streetscape on the site to test crucial technology and treatments that improve mobility for New Yorkers with disabilities," a DOT spokesman said in a statement.

The construction of affordable housing on the city-owned site would not necessarily mean the DOT would lose use of the land, Brewer said. In the past, the city has accommodated "competing uses" in order to construct housing on public land. 

The borough president offered examples such as dedicating space in the new facility for uses such as ambulance or police vehicle parking as a model for accommodating the DOT should the site be converted for housing.

"When you have competing uses you get creative about figuring it out," Brewer said. "We are very undeserved with affordable housing and we are very undeserved in the borough of Manhattan with city-owned land. When you have city-owned land you can build low, low, low income housing."

The site itself would be perfect for housing, the elected officials said. A future low-rise building could house as many as 200 families just two blocks away from the 1 train and steps away from nearby Riverside Park. Advocates from the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association and a working group to establish a community land trust also backed affordable housing construction on the site Thursday.

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