BY JACKSON CHEN | Amidst an ongoing battle between opposing parties regarding a controversial nursing home project on West 97th Street, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration have for some time been quietly working to broker a solution acceptable to both sides.
Healthcare nonprofit Jewish Home Lifecare is trying to move forward on a 20-story nursing home right next door to P.S. 163, but has been held up by a legal challenge that led to a State Supreme Court ruling in December, now under appeal, ordering more environmental review of the project. One of the project’s leading opposition groups, made up of parents of P.S. 163 students, and JHL have been in negotiations over their differences since last fall, but even with the mayor’s intervention, that effort has turned sour.
Administration officials, with instructions from de Blasio to try to hammer out a settlement, were on hand for a June 30 meeting, first reported earlier this month by the Daily News. According to a mayoral spokesperson, that meeting was not the first time where administrative officials tried to find common ground between JHL and its critics.
“The mayor has been playing a constructive role,” Ethan Geto, a JHL spokesperson said. “He has tried to facilitate a lot of the conversations, seeing how the city administration can possibly help.”
And despite the city’s filing of an amicus brief on March 22 defending the original environmental review process that the opposition strongly criticized, the parents agree that de Blasio has been helpful in the negotiations.
“We very much appreciate the mayor’s position that there needs to be significantly more mitigation to resolve the parents’ concern,” Rene Kathawala, the parents’ attorney and himself a P.S. 163 parent, said. “We understand the mayor was hopeful that JHL would offer the necessary mitigation, and he is now aware that JHL has not done so.”
In a written statement, de Blasio said, “The safety of our children is a top priority of my administration. I instructed my team to help facilitate a fair outcome that would ease the genuine concerns of P.S. 163 parents, and I am disappointed that JHL has made a proposal that falls well short of accomplishing that. We remain ready to work productively with both sides and will explore all options available to us in achieving an optimal resolution.”
For now, however, the settlement talks, which began last fall with the two sides signing confidentiality agreements limiting their ability to speak publicly about the negotiations, have descended largely into head-butting.
According to Kathawala, JHL offered the parents a “very meaningful” settlement in March, only to withdraw it in June for reasons he said “only JHL and its agents know.”
Asked why the offer was pulled back, a JHL spokesperson instead pointed out that there was a July 14 settlement offer from the nonprofit, which the parents rejected on July 25.
Kathawala said the July offer “totally failed to contain necessary mitigation measures to address the health, safety, and educational concerns the parents have raised consistently since May 2014,” leading to the parents’ rejection of it.
The parents’ position is now that the settlement discussions have ended because of JHL’s refusal to compromise, but the nonprofit insists it has an offer on the table and is waiting on any counteroffer from the parents in what it characterizes as continuing talks.
“Even though the parents may not be happy about the latest round of negotiations,” Geto said, “as far as we’re concerned, negotiations have not been formally terminated.”
According to Kathawala, JHL has offered nothing new to alleviate the parents’ concerns. While he could not elaborate on the specifics of the settlement talks, the parents’ main concerns have always revolved around the noise and hazardous materials created from the construction, and specifically their impact on students who spend their weekdays at the adjacent school.
“The PS 163 parent perspective is that JHL is disingenuous, as in their most recent settlement proposal they have failed to address the parents’ legitimate concerns despite saying that P.S. 163 was a top priority,” Kathawala said, and then referring to last year’s ruling from Judge Joan Lobis, added, “JHL has withdrawn everything meaningful that might have helped to address the significant harm that the Supreme Court held would occur if JHL’s appeal is successful and the Final Environmental Impact Statement is the last word on this project.”
JHL maintains that it plans additional measures, beyond those mandated by the city, for the nursing home project.
“Nobody likes to be next to a construction site, and parents are concerned about their kids being next to construction,” Geto said. “But Jewish Home is committed to a construction program that is well beyond each of the governing agencies’ requirements.”
On top of noise-attenuating windows and air-conditioning units to be installed on the eastern end of the school, which faces the proposed project’s site, JHL said it is committed to relocating the crane so it will never swing over the school, installing a 10-foot “acoustically-treated” fence, netting, and a cocoon during the concrete pouring phase, and taking the school calendar into consideration when scheduling construction to minimize inconvenience.
JHL also said it would implement remedial plans approved by the New York State Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation to minimize dust emissions and continuously monitor noise and dust throughout the construction. The School Construction Authority sent a letter to JHL shortly after the June 30 meeting committing to oversee remediation requested by parents that the nonprofit agrees to, according to a mayoral spokesperson.
“The city, including the mayor, has been involved in trying to facilitate a settlement throughout,” Kathawala said. “To their credit, they have offered all of their resources to try and have the parties reach a settlement, but JHL, despite its significant resources and that of its business partner in the land swap, have chosen not to move forward with it.”
With no settlement in sight, a decision from the appeals court considering JHL’s request for review of Lobis’ December 2015 order regarding the environmental impact report is the expected to be released soon.
“We hope the appellate division will agree with and affirm the thoughtful analysis in Judge Lobis’ opinion,” Kathawala said.
JHL’s spokesperson, meanwhile, said the nonprofit is confident that the nursing home will be constructed, no matter what the outcome of the pending litigation.
“Our bottom line is that we’re very hopeful we will be able to proceed here based on how the legal judgments ultimately come out,” Geto said. “Of course, Jewish Home has options to proceed with this project even if the court ruled against it.”