Home's expansion wins no converts

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Neighbors surrounding the Hebrew Home at Riverdale’s Palisade Avenue campus had one last chance to speak out on the facility’s proposed expansion in front of Community Board 8’s land use committee, and they knew it, packing the large multipurpose room at The Riverdale Y, making their voices — and hisses — heard.

“I understand this is a business deal,” said Pat Harper, who lives in one of the Skyview-on-the-Hudson towers overlooking the Hebrew Home. “I have nothing against business deals. Housing is a wonderful thing. However, just because you can’t do it within the rules that exist now and make a profit doesn’t mean that you get to take away our rules.”

Hebrew Home seeks to open New York City’s first continuing care retirement community, more popularly known as CCRCs. Such communities add a bridge between complete independent living and the assisted living ultimately provided by facilities like Hebrew Home, providing apartments and built-in care, along with a map that should handle all their health care for the rest of their lives.

But to do it, Hebrew Home’s parent, RiverSpring Health, needs to knock down the former Passionist Retreat building on its south campus. In its place, it plans to build 388 CCRC units — a third of them in a pair of four- and six-story buildings on the retreat site, and a larger 12-story structure on its north campus.

The north campus already is zoned for such a tall structure, RiverSpring officials say, but it’s the smaller buildings in a low-density area within the Special Natural Area District that’s creating problems with neighbors. And they oppose RiverSpring’s push for a special permit that would allow them to build on the southern property along the Hudson River.

Elizabeth Shaw said she and her husband are new to Riverdale, escaping Manhattan’s Upper West Side because of how tall buildings and high number of cars choked people out. Riverdale, she said, was much different, with plenty of space. But letting Hebrew Home expand could be the beginning of the end of that.

“Here we found there still exists green space, and there is an amazing community, which is both inclusive and caring,” Shaw said. “But the application from the Hebrew Home … not only severely challenges the zoning regulations and the low density of this area, it negatively impacts the Special Natural Area District requirements. This simply smacks of overcrowding this quiet, intimate community, and overrunning it with traffic.”

Both sides of the Hebrew Home debate filled the room, but some people came on their own — like Jennifer Dillon. 

“I have been in health care for my whole life, and I work with the elderly,” she said. “I have to say, I came in here, I have no signs, I have no papers to hand out, and I am very curious about things. But if Hebrew Home does not go through with this plan and they pull out and sell their property, what goes there next? Has anyone really thought of that?”

Building a CCRC could help keep Hebrew Home sustainable as a non-profit, RiverSpring chief executive Daniel Reingold said. 

“The non-profit nursing homes in the city of New York are facing an extraordinarily daunting situation,” he said, pointing out that few facilities like Hebrew Home are still operated by non-profits. “Non-profits lose money on every resident who is paid for by Medicaid, and there are a lot of residents. So we have to engage in other activities in order to subsidize those losses.”

When non-profits are forced to sell, Reingold said, the new company immediately comes in and cuts staff and wages, and eliminates many quality of life programs. 

“They evict, or allow to leave through attrition, the Medicaid patients, and replace them with Medicare patients with whom they get twice the money,” Reingold said. “As a result, in a period of six months, they turn around from losing money to making more.”

Those moving into a CCRC aren’t buying units. Instead, they are putting down hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the health care they’ll need for the rest of their lives, Reingold said. Monthly fees pay for meals, activities and specific care. And when that resident moves out or passes away, a vast majority of the money put back in returns to the family.

Martin Zelnik, a local architect that has been one of the community leaders opposing the Hebrew Home expansion, said typical community residents couldn’t afford to pay out between $770,000 and $1.3 million upfront, and then pay up to $8,000 a month after that. 

“Look to your left and look to your right,” Zelnik said to the land use committee members. “How many of you truly believe that this RiverSpring CCRC constitutes and should fall under the new zoning rubric category of affordable housing? How many of your friends, family and neighbors will be able to afford to live in this RiverSpring CCRC?”

Monday’s meeting was the first of three CB8 has planned to address the Hebrew Home’s application with the city. This particular meeting was focused purely on public comment, while a June 7 meeting will include a presentation from Hebrew Home and comments from committee members.

The full board will then cast final votes during a meeting the week of June 18 before the process moves on to the borough president and ultimately city council.

Although the Passionist Retreat land is zoned for single-family residential, city zoning ordinances allow organizations like assisted living facilities to build higher densities as long as they receive a special permit.

Even if government officials ultimately approve, the simple fact Hebrew Home wants to expand its campus in such a way spits in the face of the neighborhood, activist Jennifer Klein said.

“The fact that they have had a chain-linked fence around their property for five years,” Klein said, “has come to symbolize the disrespect they have for our neighborhood character.”

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