Trinity Financial – A. Philip Randolph Houses
Trinity Financial has created local partnerships to revitalize public housing in Harlem.
By Chris Kelsch
The A. Philip Randolph Houses, located on a block of 114th Street in Harlem in New York City, used to stand as a symbol of urban decay, neglect and budget shortfalls. Today, however, they stand as a symbol of what strong partnerships between public and private entities can accomplish with vision, hard work and determination.
Boston-based Trinity Financial, a developer with a reputation for transforming urban areas, in partnership with local community based development corporation West Harlem Group Assistance (WHGA), was chosen as the developer on a gut rehabilitation project that will ultimately transform 36 buildings into a modern public housing complex situated within a historic district.
The five-story “Old Law” tenement buildings were built in the 1890s between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass (then called Eighth Avenue) boulevards. They accommodated European immigrants who commuted to factories on the West Side using newly constructed elevated trains.
The buildings were purchased and renovated in the 1970s by New York City and converted into public housing. By 2007, however, after years of budgetary and maintenance constraints the buildings were assessed for a full gut rehabilitation, driving the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to relocate residents on the south side of the project site to public housing elsewhere throughout the city due to the distressed condition of the buildings. NYCHA initially intended to tear down the brownstones in order to build new housing units but could not because the New York State Historic Preservation Office declared that the historic walkups couldn’t be demolished. Thus began a long process of getting the buildings rehabbed, with its completion a decade in the making.
Needless to say, the south-side buildings were in substantial distress after sitting empty for almost a decade. Due to past fires and water damage, the wood floors were falling in, notes Christoph Stump, Trinity Financial vice president of design and construction. “This was a historic gut rehab,” Stump says. “We had to maintain and restore all exterior walls and entrance stoops, as well as the interior existing stairwells and entry sequences. We also had to make sure the renovated buildings would be accessible for the mobility impaired and had to include elevators as well.”
Because there are two sets of buildings, one on each side of 114th, the project is being completed in two phases. The first phase is the south side, where 22 brownstone tenement buildings were reconfigured into two buildings, with 11 tenements each. Within those two buildings, there are 147 public housing units and 20 affordable units rented through a housing lottery. On the north side, the remaining 14 brownstone tenements will be reconfigured into one building, so upon completion the total site will have three buildings. The first building on the south side opened in April 2016, and the second one a month later. The second-phase building on the north side is set for opening in mid-2018.
For Trinity Financial, the scope of the project was a challenge, but one the company was equipped to handle thanks to its partnership with NYCHA, notes Thomas Brown, Trinity Financial vice president of development in its New York office. “As a company, we really embrace partnerships,” Brown says. “We had great partnerships with New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and NYCHA throughout the project.”
Partnerships were vital in securing funding for the redevelopment. The first step was in creating a national historic district, which included The Wadleigh School, dating from 1902 and located on the same block. The total cost of both phases of the Randolph Houses project is approximately $160 Million ($96 Million for Phase 1 and $64 Million for Phase 2). The project is being funded by a combination of financial resources including private investor equity raised from the sale of Low Income Housing Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits, as well as funding provided by NYC HPD, HDC, NYCHA and local elected officials, making this project a great example of public-private partnership in creating high-quality residential housing.
Trinity’s local development partner, West Harlem Group Assistance, was instrumental in providing programming and resident services to the buildings’ tenants, such as computer literacy, healthy living classes, job referrals, healthy cooking and yoga. And a major partnership was formed with Mega Contracting Group out of Astoria, N.Y. Mega has significant experience building many projects in New York and fully bought into the project’s goal of providing workforce and sub-contracting opportunities to local, low-income, minority and women businesses and individuals.
“Trinity, West Harlem Group Assistance and Mega made extreme efforts to hire locally,” Brown recalls,. “We wanted to give opportunities to minority and woman-owned businesses.” According to Brown, there were also efforts with the help of West Harlem Group Assistance to hire local residents to work in the project, as well as through NYCHA’s resident training and job placement program.
The efforts of Trinity, West Harlem Group Assistance, Mega, and the Harlem and New York communities have resulted in a transformation of the buildings and the lives of residents. In the south buildings, Trinity has turned what had been 305 apartments into 168 new and upgraded apartments.
The reduction of units was necessary to meet modern building codes and accessibility requirements, as well as create larger apartments with more closet space. On the north side, 145 apartments will be rehabbed into 115 affordable housing units, ranging from studios to four bedrooms. When the entire project is completed on both sides, a total of 452 small apartments will be made into 283 modern units with brand-new appliances and amenities.
Just as important, an additional 3,000 square feet of amenities has been added. “We are trying to create a sense of community,” Stump says. “Some tenants have lived their entire lives here, so we wanted to make sure that returning residents were pleased with the new buildings.”
Fostering a sense of community for its tenants meant adding amenities such as a resident services office, computer room, class room, laundry rooms on every floor, workout room and a landscaped inner courtyard.
Further, the buildings are also very energy efficient. Stump explains: “We installed a new HVAC System known as variable refrigerant flow. This energy efficient system allows heating and cooling adjustable for each space without any wall penetrations, which is a prerequisite to retain the integrity of the historic exterior walls. Together with spray foam insulation on the interior, the envelope is relatively air-tight, compared to standard rehabilitation projects.”
In addition to being more energy efficient, the new buildings are also transforming lives. All units are handicapped adaptable. “There is an aging population in the building,” Brown says. “Now with elevators, this new development is a liberation for a lot of the residents.”
In choosing Trinity Financial for this project, NYCHA chose a company long on experience in urban renewal projects. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2017, the company (which was founded in 1987 by principals Patrick Lee and James Keefe) has earned its reputation as a top-notch developer all along the northeast corridor with projects in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut- in addition to its current operations in New York. “The company started out focusing on affordable residential housing,” Brown says. “[It] eventually expanded to mixed use, mixed income and market-rate development. As a company, we really embrace working with municipalities and working with local partners.”
The spirit of collaboration certainly came into play with the Randolph Houses. “One of our keys is we give emphasis to building with and for the community, emphasizing local participation along the way,” Brown says. “In every step, we reached out to the community for input. We feel that the residents of an area are key stakeholders, and know what needs to be done. We take the feedback, absorb it and review it. In the end, we put out a product that benefits the community.”
Though 30 years old, it wasn’t until two-and–a-half years ago that Trinity opened an office in New York. And as evidenced by the success of the Randolph Houses, the partnership that Trinity has formed with New York remains strong. “New York’s emphasis on sustainability and green initiatives align with our views,” Brown says. “Our reputation gained from our successful development efforts in other states allowed us to establish a strong foothold here. Our reputation for quality work and community focus has really allowed us to expand our efforts into New York.”
As Trinity continues to focus on embracing relationships and finding good partners, its portfolio in New York continues to expand. “We bring a wealth of development and design expertise,” Brown says. “But you have to have partners that have a collaborative attitude in taking on complicated projects. In the Randolph Houses project, we’ve had the great fortune to work with partners that embrace this collaborative spirit.”