AMSTERDAM -- Nearly 80 people filled the community room of the Amsterdam Housing Authority on Wednesday to voice their hopes and fears about the $30 million Chalmers Mill Lofts apartment project.
The forum was conducted by the developers of the project, KCG Development and DEW Ventures of Saratoga Springs. Stacy Kaplowitz, vice president of development for KCG, said her company is looking for community feedback for the 130-unit apartment building it plans to build on the 3.3-acre property on Amsterdam's southside formerly occupied by the Chalmers Knitting Mill. She said her company has built similar buildings in waterfront areas in Texas and other places where activities like "pop-up tents and food trucks" helped to form communities.
"We're looking for feedback from the community. If we want you to come hang out down there, what do you want to see? We want this to be active all year long," she said.
The first response to Kaplowitz's request for feedback set the tone for the evening.
"I have a question," said a woman who identified herself as an Amsterdam resident. "In Boston, in Bolton, Mass., in Baltimore, in Savannah, all of these places you've built in waterfront areas, how many of them had this lower income housing? Amsterdam has lots of lower income housing. We are desperate! People, who want to downsize, and who want apartments. Young professionals who want to come in. Amsterdam for the last 25 years has been a laughingstock, and I fear ... we may be shooting ourselves in the foot, again."
One of the most controversial elements of the KCG Development project among attendees of the forum seemed to be its status as a Section 42 affordable housing project. About 80 percent of the units in the building would be priced to be affordable for people making 50 percent to 60 percent of the area median income level, defined as $58,000.
Rent prices for the affordable housing units would range from $650 per month for a one-bedroom to $750 for a two-bedroom apartment. The rest of the units would be based on a market rate that will start at $1,100 and fluctuate from there.
Some residents argued at the forum that the 130 Chalmers units will simply draw existing renters from the multi-unit family homes in Amsterdam and fail to capture higher income individuals who might move into the city to take advantage of the waterfront property apartments.
"I don't feel you're ever going to bring new people into this area. You're just going to relocate what's here, leaving two-family houses vacant that are already supporting the low-income community that we have," said Betty Clough, a city landlord. "We already have 300-plus vacant houses in this city; landlords who rent to low-income families here are going to be devastated by this. We are not bringing anybody new in — Amsterdam deserves better than this. The last thing we need is more low-income housing."
Bill Teator, a managing director with DEW Ventures, said financing for the $30 million venture is only possible with the inclusion of section 42 tax credits, a hedge that lowers the risk for investors who will put up the money for the project. Teator said his firm and KCG Development paid for a market feasibility study that showed the Chalmers Mill Lofts apartments could provide for up to 3 percent of the rental market in the range of rents offered at the building. He said in the apartment development business anything less than a 20 percent capture number is considered a solid investment, but despite that the low income nature of the economy in and around Amsterdam would make the development too risky without the Section 42 housing tax credits.
Some of the other complaints made Wednesday night included: a lack of balconies in the preliminary renderings for the project; a lack of laundry facilities in the apartments; a lack of available parking on the southside to accomodate for the building or events that might be held there; and a lack of public input for the design of the project before it received regulatory approval from the city and county planning boards.
One of the features of the project will be a 300-seat restaurant and banquet facility operated by successful restaurateurs the Lanzi Brothers. Some people complained that more restaurants weren't given a chance to compete for the location.
Teator said the developers chose the Lanzi family because of their reputation and their ability to pay a multiyear lease costing "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Defending the project
Mayor Michael Villa defended the development project. Villa said he's working with property owners close to the project to open up more parking for the building.
"To say that there is a need 700 parking spots is not at all realistic. Even if you had a banquet with 300 people, 300 people don't drive individual cars to a banquet," he said. "All I hear are the negatives of this project, but nobody is mentioning the positives.
"This land has been vacant for nearly seven years. The previous administration, when the last developer failed, said this would be a hole in the ground forever, but we have a $30 million investment coming into the city, partnering with the Castle that just put $3 million into that building; we have development. We are not going to get four aces right off the bat. This is a key component to Amsterdam beginning to show itself, to grow itself, to become attractive to outside people."
Villa said the inclusion of the Lanzi's Southside restaurant and banquet hall will be a positive for his city.
"We do not have a banquet facility in the entire county. Every banquet that I go to for a function, whether its Office for the Aging, Liberty Enterprises, St. Mary's Hospital, we're at Glen Sanders Mansion [in Scotia], there's not a place to even have a chamber breakfast in the city of Amsterdam! To bring a family back that can service this community's needs, that's reputable, that's not going anywhere for the next 50 years, to say that this is a negative project is simply not looking at the whole picture," Villa said.
Some questioned whether the project will be in line for any government grants or tax breaks.
Teator said the project is not receiving any grants, but he isn't yet certain whether it will seek a Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement to lower the property tax costs. He said the developers have not yet determined if those tax breaks will be necessary to make the project viable, but will make that determination in the coming months as they attempt to secure financing.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, attended the forum. He said he's concerned that not enough public input was gathered about the design for the project, particularly with respect to how it overlooks the Mohawk Valley Pedestrian Bridge.
"This is a transformational piece that should be the epicenter of our plan. I'm just wondering why we wouldn't offer a view that offers the best view," he said.
Kaplowitz and Teator said the design elements of the project have not yet been finalized, and it is possible that balconies, laundry amenities and a possible redesign of the view of the bridge from the banquet hall could be included in the final plan, although it may affect the final cost of the project.
Kaplowitz said her company views the potential clientele of the apartment building as serving the workforce, rather than possible stereotypes about low income housing, and said that if it weren't for the income of her husband, she would qualify to live in the Chalmers Mill Lofts apartment project. She said the project will also, like any apartment building, be required to accept Section 8 housing vouchers if presented by prospective tenants.
"You'll be getting people who work at McDonalds!" screamed one irate person in the crowd after the discussion of the Section 8 vouchers.