SCHENECTADY – A proposed project to turn a former school into apartments is drawing scrutiny from some members of the community.
A developer is looking to turn the vacant Elmer Avenue Elementary School into 51 affordable apartments for senior citizens.
However, a planned vote to allow the mayor to enter a contract with the developer was delayed by the City Council on Monday, amid concerns raised by the community.
The concerns, as summarized by Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, centered on whether $236,000 in federal money that’s overseen by the city would be better spent helping struggling property owners rehab their properties.
The city is seeking to enter a contract with Better Community Neighborhoods Inc. for the estimated $20 million Elmer Gardens Project.
Two weeks ago, two representatives of the development team asked the council to reallocate $236,000 from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development HOME Investment Partnership Program.
The city funding hasn’t been used because of a merger that resulted in BCNI, the non-profit organization developing the project.
In lieu of Monday’s planned vote, the matter was tabled and is likely to return for a vote Aug. 16.
Porterfield said she and Council President John Mootooveren have pushed for the inclusion of a Community Benefits Agreement.
A CBA is a project-specific agreement between a developer and a community coalition that details the project’s contributions to the community and ensures community support for the project. It yields the city power to enforce the community benefits terms.
Porterfield said the original focus of the former BNI was to help homeowners renovate their properties through grants from the organization. She expressed concern that the original objective had been lost in favor of larger development goals by the city.
“I can say from a personal note that 51 years ago, my family purchased one of the first BNI homes,” Porterfield said. “So I can attest to what homeownership in a neighborhood can do to stabilize, and it becomes longterm. So I think that it’s important for other families still also to have that opportunity to do that.”
Porterfield indicated she and Mootooveren participated in a virtual meeting with BCNI’s board chairman, along with the Rev. Nicolle Harris, president of the Schenectady branch of the NAACP, which also raised concern about the reallocation request.
A consensus was reached regarding the CBA, which Porterfield said would foster input from the community.
Deborah Rembert, president of the Schenectady Tenants Association, had also raised issue about the Elmer Gardens project, asserting during a recent council meeting that the money should target struggling homeowners and their desires for rehab projects.
Said Porterfield: “We know that the high tide raises all boats. So based on that, where we agreed that we will move forward in developing the community benefits agreement, and that this will come back to the council to discuss and see that agreement this coming Monday, so we can move forward with this project.
“I want to be clear that I am very much in favor of the project,” Porterfield said of planned Elmer Gardens, “and that it sounds like a really wonderful project. It’s going to enhance that neighborhood. The major concern was the movement of the money of $236,000, and then how we make sure that we implement the things that, that money was intended for in the first place.”
The two previous non-profit organizations that formed BCNI were Better Neighborhoods Inc. and Community Land Trust of Schenectady.
According to a legislative request by city Director of Development Kristin Diotte, the city in its 2018-19 yearly action plan allocated $100,000 to the former BNI to convert the vacant city-owned property into rental units. The city added $136,000 in the following year’s action plan for the same purpose.
But because of transitions within the organizations, and the merger, those activities never took place.
BCNI intends to partner with Rochester-based Home Leasing, an affordable housing development management company, to convert the school into affordable apartments for seniors.
The project will seek grants from the state Division of Homes and Community Renewal and the state Historic Preservation Office.
In other business, the council approved of a resolution requesting the New York State Legislature enact special legislation authorizing the city to use speed camera enforcement technology in school zones. It passed without discussion.
The earliest the state Legislature could give approval would be January or February, according to Council Majority Leader John Polimeni, who sponsored the local petition from the council’s Public Safety Committee.
The Schenectady City School District contains 11 elementary schools, three middle schools and two high school buildings.
Speed cameras are widely used in New York City, but they are being removed in Buffalo because critics say a majority of the cameras are in neighborhoods that have high populations of low-income families. They will be shut off in Buffalo on Sept. 1, according to reports.
Albany uses red-light cameras to photo-capture drivers who run red or yellow lights.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that speed cameras and red-light cameras were unconstitutional.
Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia also prohibit both speed cameras and red-light cameras.
Montana and South Dakota prohibit red-light cameras, and New Jersey and Wisconsin do not allow speed cameras.