The American Legion hall was standing room only, not an empty chair in sight.
Yet, Andrew Cohen found the perfect sitting spot, just to the side of the small stage, but still close enough to hear — and see — the drama unfolding before him.
The city councilman’s job this night was to finally discover exactly what Community Board 8 thought about plans for the Hebrew Home at Riverdale to open what would be New York City’s first continuing care retirement community.
People already enjoying retirement but looking to be prepared for the future would have the opportunity to move into what was essentially an apartment unit inside a small urban village. Meals, essentials, even nursing care would be available. And when the time came for something more pressing, like a more typical assisted living facility, all the arrangements — and payments — would be made.
But there was just one problem: Hebrew Home hadn’t built it yet. And the way that final hour of debate amongst the members of CB8’s land use committee was going — arguing over nearly every element of a proposed agreement with surrounding neighbors, no matter how inconsequential — it might never get built.
“This is where this needs to be aired out,” Cohen would tell the committee just before their vote. “I have a lot of respect for all the talent here, but every detail doesn’t have to be worked out right now. This will not get voted on in the city council until September or October. There is a lot of time.”
Another protracted debate later, land use chair Charles Moerdler started reading the names of each committee member, one by one, looking for either a thumbs up or thumbs down on construction of more than 350 CCRC units at Hebrew Home.
“Sylvia Alexander?” Abstain.
“Robert Bender?” Abstain.
“Eric Bell?” No.
“Eric Dinowitz?” No.
“Margaret Donato?” No.
As if introducing the new dance craze “The Floss” for the first time, it seemed everyone had joined the “no” team. Once in a while, the train would be disrupted by a yes vote from members like David Gellman, Darius Jackson and Moerdler himself.
But as each name was read, it became obvious to the more than 200 people crowded into the Corlear Avenue hall — if Hebrew Home is going to build a CCRC, it’s going to do it without CB8’s blessing.
Nobody from Hebrew Home spoke during the Monday night hearing, not even the proposed expansion’s biggest champion, Daniel Reingold. Instead, they let the committee not speak … more like argue, in what likely will not go down as one of CB8’s proudest moments.
“You claim there is an agreement,” former CB8 chair Robert Fanuzzi told Moerdler. “We received a contrary agreement that there is no agreement.”
Over the weekend, Moerdler had distributed to the board what appeared to be a breakthrough in the long stalled negotiations between Hebrew Home and surrounding neighbors, who included single-family homeowners to the south of its Palisade Avenue campus, and the hundreds of residents who make up the towering Skyview-on-the-Hudson to the east.
The neighbors would end their opposition to Hebrew Home’s expansion plans as long as the nonprofit reduced the size of its tallest building from 10 stories to nine, bound itself to not develop a southern parcel beyond the construction of a three-story and five-story building, and agree to look at traffic impacts down the road, among other things.
It was the latest of many agreements brokered by Moerdler and Cohen, with the hopes it would clear the way for Hebrew Home to take its next step discussing the project with Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr.
But as word about the compromise spread Monday ahead of the meeting, some of the neighbors’ most outspoken leaders cried foul.
“Both sides have been deeply immersed throughout the weekend in trying to find a reasonable middle ground,” local architect Martin Zelnik told The Riverdale Press in an email Monday afternoon.
“When we think we are very close to a compromise, the (Hebrew Home) negotiating team adds some details that were not previously agreed to.”
For several members of the board, these individual voices were carrying a much different tune than what representatives for opponents had hammered out at the negotiating table.
And forget the agreement — there was no agreement.
“You could look at it as a glass half full,” board member Laura Spalter said. “But I’m looking at it as the glass is half empty. We are not close to a deal.”
Every time a group is given permission to build beyond what its existing zoning allows, it sets a precedent that allows more (and larger) generous moves away from what was originally intended, Spalter said.
“What’s another story?” she asked. “What’s another two stories? What’s another three stories? I’m talking about my values and how I feel about zoning. What becomes the new normal becomes very difficult in terms of the impacts on the community.”
Moerdler, however, called Spalter out, citing her recent vote in favor of the College of Mount Saint Vincent to construct a six-story, 64,000-square-foot dormitory and laboratory building on land protected by the Special Natural Area District just north of Hebrew Home.
“It is the same violation of SNAD” as what Hebrew Home’s project would be, Moerdler said.
But what The Mount is doing is different, Spalter shot back.
“They are not demolishing buildings. They are adding a few stories to an existing building. It does not impact the public’s view.”
The Mount Saint Vincent’s construction plan actually calls for the new construction of all six stories, and would not be built on top of an existing structure.
Once the Hebrew Home results were announced, Cohen quickly ducked out, and didn’t return a request after the meeting for comment. But now he has a decision to make — does he move the Hebrew Home project forward without CB8 approval, or does the entire project die on the floor of the American Legion?
The Hebrew Home wasn’t ready to give up, however, as the borough president — and ultimately the city council — prepare to add their two cents to the expansion plans.
“We are disappointed with the outcome of the board vote, but we look forward to working with Councilman Cohen and other interested parties as we move forward” through the city approval process, a Hebrew Home spokesman said outside the meeting.
And without that agreement secured through a positive CB8 vote, it’s possible that approval process will include not a 10-story north campus building, but 12, as well as two smaller buildings to the south at the original four- and six-story heights.