Board Backs Longer Review for Jewish Lifecare Project

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Over 100 people came out to Community Board 7's full board meeting last Tuesday to express support for expanding the review process for building Jewish Home Lifecare's (JHL) proposed new location on West 97th Street. Ultimately, the board was on their side, recommending the application go through additional review procedures. The decision hinged on a question of open space in the district.

After abandoning plans to rebuild at its current West 106th Street home and scrapping a plan to build at West 100th Street, the nonprofit elder care organization is hoping to construct a 20-story tower on what is currently a parking lot for the Park West Village apartment complex. As it stands, the project is as-of-right, meaning that it is not subject to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that allows for an extensive public comment period.

Many attendees came to the meeting to urge the board to pass its rather technical-sounding resolution that recommends that JHL's application require a special permit that would force the lengthier ULURP. The resolution zeroed in on one point in the zoning resolution that covers the certification of certain community facility uses.

The section specifies that if an application meets any of three points, it should be subject to additional review. The point that Community Board 7 debated was whether "a scarcity of land for general community purposes exists."

At issue was the question of what scarcity means and whether the board should focus on this one caveat in order to try to bring about a review process. Some board members argued that they should latch onto whatever legal foothold they could in order to encourage greater public review, while others were more wary of pushing what could be seen as a technicality.

"I do think it's imperative, it's appropriate for the community board to acknowledge the weight of the community's feeling about this," said board member Helen Rosenthal. "Because the specter of scarcity exists, the vote for the resolution gives the community the opportunity to thoroughly explore issues of traffic, demand additional school space and demand open space," she said.

Cathy Unsino, a local resident and nursing home reform advocate who has adamantly opposed the design of the proposed building, recommended that JHL build numerous low-rise household-type structures throughout Manhattan.

Others spoke up against building the facility too close to a school, about blocking light and air on the block and about the legality of Park West Village selling the parking lot in the first place. While reasons for their opposition ranged from traffic concerns to safety to noise, JHL representatives honed in on the one thing that the board had to consider, which was the scarcity question.

Ed Wallace, an attorney representing JHL said, "I understand that there are many people who would rather Jewish Home stay at 106th Street," Wallace said. "We ask you to look at the meaning and intent of the zoning resolution and understand it was written for another day and another time."

Bruce Nathanson, a senior vice president at JHL, detailed the company's plan to reduce its number of beds to 414 (264 for long-term care and 150 for sub-acute rehabilitation)-and employ the greenhouse model, which stacks clusters of rooms around communal kitchens and living rooms, as opposed to the traditional hospital-like model of long corridors.

"We are reducing our real estate footprint, leaving behind more potential community facility space," Nathason said. "We're moving to a site that is now an aboveground parking lot, not a community facility by any definition."

But as board chairman Mark Diller explained, the zoning question is whether or not scarcity for community facilities exists in the district, not whether the particular application would take away from that space.

Board member Hope Cohen agreed it was important to pass the resolution. "This is a very narrow and controversial finding we have to make to get into the game," she said. "Right now this is as-of-right, it will go through city planning and that's the end of the story."

The board ultimately passed the resolution, voting to send their recommendation to City Planning along with a letter summarizing the community's concerns, which Diller said he would draft in the coming weeks.

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