The deal Westchester County Executive Andy O’Rourke forged to build the WestHELP homeless complex in Greenburgh came together in 1990 at the 21 Club, that swank mid-town Manhattan restaurant at a lunch meeting set up by New Rochelle radio impresario Bill O’Shaughnessy.
“I remember that Andrew was a little nervous, but O’Rourke set him at ease,” O’Shaughnessy recalled Monday morning as mourners prepared for this afternoon’s wake for O’Rourke. “They got along.”
Over martinis that day, O’Rourke and Andrew Cuomo, the son of then-Gov . Mario Cuomo, mapped out the deal: the younger Cuomo would get the housing complex on six acres of county land by Westchester Community College for 10 years, after which it would be turned over to Westchester County, and the town of Greenburgh, to rent for the ensuing 30 years. Cuomo delivered on his end of the bargain, and more: the WestHELP complex served the homeless for 20 years before it was turned over the Westchester and Greenburgh in November, 2011.
Fourteen months later, as Westchester leaders note O’Rourke’s death with praise of his heart for the poor and his political mastery that built the WestHELP complex, a bipartisan coalition is working furiously to raze the apartments, and with it, O’Rourke’s proud housing legacy.
Neither Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino nor the Greenburgh Town Board want to hold up their end of O’Rourke’s grand bargain, in which Cuomo got his housing for the homeless, and we received that most precious of Westchester resources: affordable housing for the working poor or senior citizens pushed to the limit by our region’s sky-high apartment rents.
Mario Cuomo on Saturday talked to O’Shaughnessy on WVOX about the political risks O’Rourke took when he forged the deal with his son, to create the WestHELP homeless complex in exchange for providing rental housing to the community after the complex closed.
”What was a Republican in Westchester doing helping Andrew build housing for poor Democrats who were mainly the kind of people who lived in those humble homes he was building?” Cuomo asked. “But Andy (O’Rourke) – bright and intelligent person that he was – looked up over the labels constantly. If something was good, he recognized it was good, and he found something to do with it for our betterment. And that’s what he did with Andrew and the housing projects. It got him no votes. It got him the irritation of a lot of Republicans in your area. He would smile at that … make a joke and move on looking for another good thing to do.”
Greenburgh has rejected proposals from five housing developers to fix up the apartments, including one from Community Housing Innovations in White Plains that would create a community for active senior citizens.
It was the kind of plan O’Rourke envisioned 23 years ago.
CHI would invest $3 million – $30,000 a unit – to make ready 108 apartments that would rent for $895 a month on the campus of Westchester Community College. WCC President Joe Hankin has embraced the concept, which would link the seniors to WCC’s lifelong learning programs.
Andrew Cuomo, now, governor, has remained silent as his administration reviews the proposal from Ferncliff Manor in Yonkers, to tear down the apartments, which was submitted last week. In its place, a complex for the developmentally disabled would be built.
Greenburgh civic leader Bob Bernstein has warned that tearing down the housing could run afoul of Section 51 of General Municipal Law, would prohibits the waste of municipal assets.
“The Town can only use the apartments for low and moderate income housing,” Bernstein wrote in a spirited Facebook discussion over the weekend. “Failing that, the property must revert back to the County, and while the County can certainly use the property for Ferncliff, it cannot simply write off a $20 million taxpayer financed asset. If the county’s elected officials choose to do so, whether by giving away the ground lease rent to the Town of Greenburgh, or through some other means that allows this taxpayer financed asset to be destroyed with no compensation, these elected officials would be guilty of waste of municipal assets, which is actionable under General Municipal Law Section 51. That law provides that “all officers . . . who have acted for and on behalf of any county . . . may be prosecuted. and an action may be maintained against them to prevent . . . waste or injury to, or to restore and make good, any property. . . of such county.”
As a young writer, I covered Westchester County government in the 1990s, and developed great respect for O’Rourke. We sparred about budget issues, privatization of public services, and a report by a state public-integrity commission. But he understood the role that the press played in a democratic society. I could get Andy O’Rourke on the phone, and recall those annual one-on-one interviews in his ninth floor office in the Michaelian Office Building.
I last saw O’Rourke in May, 2012 when Astorino celebrated the opening of the final link of the South County Trailway in Yonkers. O’Rourke made what would be his last public appearance, alongside Astorino, and former county executives Al Del Bello and Andy Spano.
I asked O’Rourke about the plans, then underway, to gather support to tear down the apartments for the Ferncliff plan. O’Rourke was frankly surprised to hear that all that he’d done to create a housing legacy in Westchester would be torn down by those now in charge – those Republicans and Democrats who didn’t want to live up to the deal struck he struck over lunch at the 21 Club.
“We wanted them for seniors,” O’Rourke said. “Those are good solid apartments. They weren’t just thrown up.”
Photo: Writer David McKay Wilson and Andy O’Rourke at the South County Trailway in May, 2012.