Visitation site inches toward demolition

Delays stymie construction of proposed housing project as CB8 anxiety still mounts


An eight-foot construction fence has gone up around 160 Van Cortlandt. S., concealing the dilapidated former Catholic Church of the Visitation, rectory, and parochial school from view. Real estate investment firm Tishman Speyer is aiming to start construction on a 340-unit affordable housing development on the property sometime this year, but the project is falling behind schedule.

The city buildings department hasn’t signed off on the new building permits yet. A spokesperson for the family-owned firm said they installed the fence in order to carry out abatement work, which began last week and will continue until March.

Little else has happened since Tishman Speyer purchased the 1.3-acre property from the New York archdiocese for $20.6 million in August.

The firm has applied for a $115.2 million loan from the city’s housing development corp. and is seeking further financial assistance from the city’s housing agency. That includes a menu of programs and tax incentives to finance new housing construction and allocates federal low-income housing tax credits.

A spokesperson for the agency said talks with Tishman Speyer were in the “very early stages.” The project hasn’t been assigned a project manager yet, he said.

A severe staffing shortage at the city agency is taking a heavy toll on the pace of affordable housing construction, said Brendan Cheney, a policy analyst at the New York Housing Conference.

“What we’re hearing and seeing is that developers are facing several challenges that are making it harder to build affordable housing even when they have viable projects,” Cheney said. “We’ve known for the past couple of years that (the department of housing preservation and development) does not have enough staff to manage projects.

“It really came to a head last year when we saw the decline in new construction.”

Mayor Eric Adams’ management report showed a staggering 45 percent decline in new affordable housing construction received city financing last fiscal year.

The cost of construction in New York City meanwhile increased more than 14 percent in 2022. Borrowers are facing the highest interest rates in 20 years as inflation persists.

“It is now typical to run into delays getting a project into HPD’s pipeline and getting it financed,” Cheney said. “Then you can start construction.”

For CB8, time is of the essence

Meanwhile, Community Board 8 land use chair Charles Moerdler is struggling to quell the angst about the imminent transformation of the tree-lined block across from Van Cortlandt Park.

Tishman Speyer’s development is only half of the picture. Neighbors are also contending with a new public school the School Construction Authority plans to build on a smaller parcel facing Review Place.

The two developers have agreed to an easement between their properties, which will rise alongside each other in the coming years.

Neighbors and board members gawked at the scale of the building Tishman Speyer unveiled in a land use committee meeting last September.

“We’re not looking to build this and then exit tomorrow,” project manager Gary Rodney told the committee. “We’d like to develop a lasting relationship with the community and with all the partners who helped make this actually happen.”

Board members did not find this assuring. They raised a host of concerns ranging from increased flood risk to the development’s impact on traffic, its lack of green space, and the preponderance of studios and one-bedroom apartments.

The firm has since declined Moerdler’s repeated invitations to return to another land use committee meeting. The project does not require discretionary action from CB8. Any hope of influencing the building’s design will likely diminish once the development secures financing.

Affordable housing of the future?

Tishman Speyer is known mainly as an office developer. The firm’s portfolio of assets spans the globe. In New York, they own Rockefeller Center, the MetLife building, and Yankee Stadium.

The development at 160 Van Cortlandt Park S. is the second outer-borough affordable housing development the firm has embarked on since launching TS Communities, an affordable housing platform headed by Rodney, who came to the company from CREA, a national tax credit syndicator that specializes in low-income housing credits. Rodney had been former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pick to head the city’s housing development corporation.

New York has recently spawned a number of mission-driven investment platforms housed within big-name real estate firms. The low cost of debt and reliably low vacancy rates add to the appeal of the affordable housing market as investors regroup from the upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2021 TS Communities purchased 10 of 11 buildings owned by Arker Companies at Edgemere Commons, a sprawling $100 million affordable housing project on 9.3-acre site in Far Rockaway.

It’s receiving $14.7 million in state funding through permanent tax-exempt bonds, plus $47.7 million in equity generated by federal low-income housing tax credits. The developers broke ground last spring.

‘Nothing to report’

In New York city, Tishman Speyer’s reputation precedes it, but CB8 is running out  of patience.

Communication broke down in December when the school site become the subject of a lawsuit challenging the School Construction Authority’s hasty public review process and environmental assessment. Both developers are now declining CB8’s requests on account of the litigation, Moerdler informed the land use committee Jan. 12.

The topic was not on CB8’s land use committee agenda this month, but members launched into an unplanned discussion prompted in part by a few neighbors who tuned into the meeting hoping for an update.

Moerdler said he sent formal invitations to both Tishman Speyer and the School Construction Authority to attend the committee’s February meeting.

“With respect to Tishman, they are the Rockefeller of the real estate construction industry, so I have higher hopes of getting them to the table,” he said.

“Their claim is they have nothing to report. I said fine, come in and tell me that.”

Land use committee member Dan Padernacht suggested the board increase the pressure by reaching out to the city agencies that fund affordable housing projects such as Tishman Speyer’s. Some members nodded in tacit approval, but Moerdler didn’t seize on the idea.

“We are going to continue to press them to come, but we don’t have subpoena power,” Moerdler said.

“I’ve made it very clear, if they don’t attend, we’ll have to do something about it.”