Cranes, cones, and construction workers have been a constant presence at the corner of East 166th Street and Tinton Avenue in the Bronx for weeks. Several residents of the neighboring Forest Houses were surprised when building began and are still not completely sure what is being erected there.
Some float theories about housing for senior citizens; others bluntly state that they know nothing about what is going up next door.
“It just dropped on us, just like that,” said Hasan Abdullah, who has lived in Forest Houses for over 50 years.
“We don’t know what kind of building it’s going to be,” echoed fellow Forest resident Victor Canales.
Not everyone is in the dark, though. The Forest Houses Tenant Association was informed about plans for the eight-story building that will contain 124 affordable housing units-but the details did not spread to all the residents. The building will be open to anyone who meets the income requirements, not just senior citizens, as rumored, and it is going up on land that NYCHA sold to Blue Sea Construction Co. in December 2010 for slightly over $1 million. The sale was meant to help realize Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New Housing Marketplace Plan, which aims to provide affordable housing to 500,000 New Yorkers by 2013-and to grant NYCHA additional funds to help preserve public housing.
Many Forest residents are unhappy about the construction. Their main complaint: lack of advance notice and communication about the development.
“I felt like they [NYCHA] just sold that part of the land, and they didn’t even consult with the tenants,” said Forest resident Joe Jenkins. “They just came to the [Tenant Association] meeting and told us what they had done.”
Lorraine Trent, who also lives in Forest, agreed. She said she did not hear about the new building “until they were already in the midst of developing it.”
Les Bluestone, co-founder of Blue Sea, disputed such claims. Bluestone said that his company and NYCHA both held meetings with the Tenant Association about the new building before the deal had closed. They explained the plans, he said, and described the overall reaction from Forest residents as “very supportive.”
NYCHA has regularly briefed the Tenant Association on the project since June 2007, according to NYCHA communications officer Sheila Stainback. The sale of land at Forest and other developments “provide NYCHA with significant opportunities to realize proceeds that will be reinvested to preserve existing public housing and fund NYCHA’s on-going operations for the benefit of all public housing residents,” Stainback wrote in an email message.
Tenant Association President Crystal Bunch placed most of the blame for tenants’ shock on their lack of involvement with the community.
“Right now, because tenants have a habit of not coming out to meetings, they see the structure up, and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, where’d this come from?’”“They do not understand that you have to be involved with the political process to get things done politically.” she said.
People from Forest Houses and other NYCHA properties will have priority for residency in the new apartment, according to Bluestone. The building will also include a rooftop greenhouse that will grow vegetables, and Forest residents will be able to purchase the produce through a Community Supported Agriculture program. Participants will pay a fee to the farmer, in this case the company Sky Vegetables, which will entitle them to a percentage of the greenhouse’s produce. Bluestone said this food would be “fresher” and “healthier” than what neighborhood residents normally have access to locally.
Many of the apartment’s other features, such as its gym and 10,000-foot outdoor play and exercise area, will only be open to the building’s tenants, not the community at large.
“Benefiting other people outside the building…wasn’t really part of our design,” said Bluestone. “The building is a building for the people that live in the building.”
Before starting construction on the building, Blue Sea had to demolish the walkways, benches and barbecues that used to be at the site. Some Forest residents are upset about this change as well.
“People used to…relax and sit down there in summertime,” said Daisy Rodriguez, who has lived in Forest for 22 years. “Now, how are people going to sit there?”
Blue Sea originally planned to relocate the barbecues and benches. However, at the request of the Tenant Association, they will be renovating Forest’s outdoor basketball court instead.
“The place they were going to put it [the new barbecue pit] was literally right underneath someone’s window,” said Tenant Association president Bunch. “If I was a resident, I’d be very upset if every day I had to smell barbecue smoke.”
Bunch looked around to see if there was another place to put the barbecue pit, but she could not find one. She decided to ask Blue Sea to rebuild the worn-out basketball court instead.
Blue Sea will be refinishing and repainting the court, replacing the fencing, and adding additional lighting, hoops and seating areas. Bluestone expects to have this done by the end of the year. His company will then plant trees and shrubberies around the court in the spring. Most residents—even those who objected to the new building—were pleased to hear about these planned renovations.
“That’s definitely a good thing, more so for the kids,” said Forest resident Erik Farmer. “Renovating is going to give kids something to do other than hanging out.”
“That’s a step up,” concurred Forest resident David Henderson. He added that the court has “been looking like that since I was a kid. I played on those same floors.” Henderson has lived in Forest since 1978.
Bluestone expects Blue Sea to complete work on the new building at the end of 2012. He estimated its total cost will be approximately $35 million.
“I think it’ll be a great building when it’s done,” he said.
Maritza Gomez, a 30-year resident of Forest, offered a slightly more reserved prediction.
“I guess it’ll be okay,” she said.