The White Plains/Greenburgh branch of the NAACP, which went to federal court in the late 1980s to fight opponents of the WestHELP homeless complex, on Saturday called on town officials and Westchester County to support the 1990 WestHELP agreement and rent the vacant apartments to low- and moderate-income residents.
The statement was issued as the town of Greenburgh and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino push a plan to tear down the 108 apartments so that a Yonkers corporation, Ferncliff Manor, can erect a residential school for developmentally disabled children on the six-acre site at the Knollwood Gate of Westchester Community College.
“The sad scenario is that it stinks of special interest pandering and backroom dealing against the interests of the taxpaying residents who need housing,” said the statement. “The emotional battle pitting the financially challenged interests against those of the developmentally disabled is unacceptable. The NAACP deplores the manipulation and will support legislators who are truly representing the people of White Plains/Greenburgh. We implore them to be vigilant and steadfast to preserve WestHELP as residential housing, as the lease provides.”
The organization called on its members to speak up in favor of stopping the demolition.
“We cannot bear the burden of tearing down a $20 million property, and you must have the courage to say so in ways that you cannot be ignored,” the statement said.
The statement was issued 12 days after the NAACP held a panel discussion on WestHELP, at Mt. Hope AME Zion Church in White Plains, which I moderated. The panel included three county legislators, Edgemont civic leader Bob Bernstein, and Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner.
Feiner said he is hoping for a decision by the county Board of Legislators by mid-February. The proposal is currently under review by the state Department of Education, and two states agencies, which are looking at Ferncliff Manor’s proposal for its residential campus at the site. The plan would require the demolition of 108 affordable apartments built in 1991. The WestHELP administrative building would be used for Ferncliff classrooms.
State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn on Thursday declined comment.
Ferncliff wants the state to approve a plan in which Ferncliff would pay the town $500,000 a year, over 10 years, for the use of WestHELP’s administration building, and have access to the six-acre site. The state would also finance construction of the residential facility for about 65 children, estimated to cost $17 million.
“I still believe that Ferncliff is the best option for the town and the property, and that the majority of the Legislature would support it,” Feiner said by phone Saturday afternoon.
That would require changing the lease approved in 1990 by the county Board of Legislators, of which Feiner was then a member, and the town of Greenburgh. The 40-year pact called for Andrew Cuomo’s HELP organization to house the homeless there for 10 years, with the town renting the apartments to low- and moderate-income tenants for the remaining 30 years.
The homeless won a second 10-year lease. The apartments were turned over to the town in Oct. 2011, and they have remained vacant as Feiner and his allies on the Town Council and in the Westchester County government collaborate on the demolition plan.
The lease calls for renting the efficiency apartments to senior citizens or municipal workers. Feiner fears the tenants may have children, who would attend the Valhalla schools.
“I honestly believe the school district would be impacted,” Feiner said.
The NAACP went to court in the late 1980s when the Mayfair Knollwood neighborhood attempted to secede from the town and create its own village to stop the project. In the 1990s, the Mayfair Knollwood Civic Association’s president was Ned McCormack, who serves as county Executive Astorino’s senior advisor and communications director. The association’s current president, Marie Smith, is the wife of County Legislator Michael Smith, R-Greenburgh, who supports Ferncliff’s demolition plan.
McCormack did not return a phone message left Saturday at his home.
“This sordid history causes us to approach the upcoming “deal” with Ferncliff Manor with great trepidation and suspicion since it would deprive potentially low-income residents from benefiting from this housing-once again,” the NAACP statement said. “The sad scenario is that it stinks of special interest pandering and backroom dealing against the interests of the tax- paying residents who need housing.”
Feiner has suggested replacing the 108 apartments with new senior housing in the Manhattan Avenue neighborhood, where a senior housing complex owned by the Greenburgh Housing Authority would be torn down to make way for new apartments in the predominantly minority area.
“The argument by the Town of Greenburgh is that they have plenty of affordable housing and intend to have more-mostly in the Fairview Greenburgh neighborhoods,” the statement said. “There is a strong suggestion of pandering to special interests to preserve certain neighborhoods while “ghettoizing” others as stated by one legislator.”
The NAACP called on Westchester County to enforce the WestHELP lease, which states that Greenburgh has the right to the apartments as long as they are maintained, and rented to low- and moderate-income tenants.
“At this time, the Town of Greenburgh is in violation of the lease agreement made with the County,” the NAACP statement said. “This site was contracted to be for residential housing for 40 years. We encourage the County to take strong action to enforce compliance with the agreement made in 1990.”
The town of Greenburgh in 2012 received $400,000 from the Valhalla school, as partial payment of the $1.1 million settlement of the lawsuit over the town’s annual payment of $650,000 to the district, after the homeless organization won a second 10-year lease. The NAACP called on the town to use those funds to restore the complex, so it could be used for its intended purpose.
Photo: The vacant WestHELP apartments./ David McKay Wilson