There are few signs of economic vitality along South Fourth Avenue in Mount Vernon, but the city is betting on a $138 million affordable housing project to revive the blighted corridor.
The Mount Vernon Industrial Development Agency approved a tax abatement plan on Nov. 30 for the first phase of The Pointe urban renewal project.
“When I reflect on the despair and the blight that has brought that part of the area down,” Richard Thomas, Mount Vernon’s mayor and IDA chairman said, “it’s only right that we redevelop.”
“It’s an area where there is nothing, nothing!” he said later.
He described the scene around Fourth Avenue and East Third Street, barely more than a half-mile from City Hall, as a place where children play among syringes and amid drug dealers.
MVP Realty Associates has been studying the area since at least 2009 and buying up properties since 2010. The developer wants to create a streetscape that invokes a sense of a “new main street” and modern buildings that provide affordable housing.
The development site is comprised mostly of small brick buildings from the 1930s. By the 1980s, most of the residential properties were replaced by machine shops and auto shops. Several locations were contaminated, according to an environmental impact statement, by petroleum products and other hazardous materials.
The buildings have housed a variety of enterprises: auto repair, bookstore, a church, clothing boutique, a club house, delis, dry cleaners, hair salons, medical bandages manufacturer, nail salon, printing, T-shirt shop and a tool and die shop. Few remain. Buildings now feature broken glass and boarded windows. One three-story apartment building has been deemed unsafe for occupancy. Vacant lots are filled with cars. The Mount Vernon City Council declared the area blighted in 2012.
The streetscape is not entirely grim. Two modern high-rises — Grace Baptist Church’s Richard Dixon Towers and Randy Daniels Towers — anchor East Third Street. Several area churches and storefront ministries attend to the residents’ spiritual needs. The project site is also less than a mile from Metro-North Railroad’s Mount Vernon East train station.
The developer sees the location as an opportunity to fix a problem. Mount Vernon has a critical shortage of housing for low-to-mid-income residents and the elderly, according to an MVP market study. The developer has identified 16 buildings that provide affordable housing or affordable rents for seniors. All 1,715 apartments are occupied and every building has a wait list, averaging three years.
MVP estimates that 9,717 households in Mount Vernon would be eligible for subsidized apartments at The Pointe, based on federal affordable housing guidelines.
The developer also sees a need for new commercial space.
The plans call for four buildings of seven to 12 floors, 350 apartments, 46,068 square feet of retail spaces and offices, 585 parking spaces and a public garden.
The first building will cost about $53.4 million. It will have 12 stories, 210 apartments, 23,178 square feet of ground-floor retail space and underground parking. It will include a mix of studios and one- to three-bedroom apartments. One-fourth of the apartments will be set aside for seniors.
The project is expected to create 300 construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs.
Rents are expected to range from $930 a month to $2,521.
MVP expects to finance the project with tax-exempt bonds issued by the New York State Housing Finance Agency, the sale of low-income housing tax credits and funds from other government housing programs.
The IDA approved a straight lease plan, by which the city or its agencies acquire titles to the properties and lease them back to MVP. Mortgage recording taxes and $3.6 million in sales taxes during project constriction will be exempted.
The developer will make payments in lieu of taxes for 30 years, beginning at $154,973 a year for the first five years and ending at $290,336 in the last five.
The developer owns about half of the 21 lots and now pays about $87,000 in property taxes. The rest of the property is owned by either the IDA or the city’s Urban Renewal Agency and is not taxed.
Thomas Scapoli, an attorney for the Mount Vernon City School District, criticized the payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, deal struck with MVP Realty when the IDA held a public hearing in November.
He estimated that the proposed development would be worth about $120 million and that the full tax bill would be about $1 million. The difference between the PILOT and the full tax rate is “irresponsible and unconscionable,” he said, and he asked the IDA to prevent the tax burden from shifting from wealthy developers to hardworking Mount Vernon families.
Thomas took several swipes at the school district’s management, financing and motivations. He invited school officials and others who are “shouting for some sort of miracle to happen” to spend some time on Third and Fourth. “Get on board,” he said, and make the neighborhood a “much better place to live and work in and play.”
If the first phase of The Pointe works, said Thomas Rajala, the city’s commissioner of management services and a member of the IDA, “this is the beginning of a renaissance on South Fourth.”
MVP Realty is a joint venture of Design Builders Group, of White Plains, and Urban Builders Collaborative, an affiliate of Lettire Construction Corp. in East Harlem. Daniel A. Amicucci, is MVP’s managing member and president of Design Builders Group and Matthew Gross is a principal in Urban Builders.
Lettire is the general contractor on The Pointe. The project team also includes SLCE Architects, Ferrandino & Associates urban planners, Kellard Sessions landscape architecture and civil engineering, Landscape & Urban Design sustainability consultant, Blanchard & Wilson legal counsel and SESI Consulting Engineers.