The vacant lot at 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue is currently just a fenced patch of dirt, with the occasional forklift on site along with a few construction workers. But the city is turning it into an emergency medical station, something Washington Heights has needed and local officials have sought for years.
Community leaders had other plans for the lot, however. During the past year Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez and Community League of the Heights Executive Director Yvonne Stennett had taken steps to build affordable housing on the site. But while Rodriguez and Stennett were planning, the Fire Department got the green light from the mayor’s office to begin building the medical station there.
“We raised $500,000 to start the process for affordable housing development on the plot,” said Rodriguez, referring to city council funds he helped make available. “Northern Manhattan has seen 18,000 residents move out and into the Bronx due to lack of affordable housing.”
But Washington Heights was also overdue for an EMS station, according to Fire Department spokesperson Frank Dwyer.
“The next nearest stations are located in the Bronx, and 40 blocks south in East Harlem; this station is badly needed,” said Dwyer via email. “This EMS station will allow for EMTs and paramedics to be better positioned in the community they serve, and will alleviate overcrowded conditions at other EMS stations.”
Rodriguez and Stennett were unaware of the Fire Department’s claim on the site until last Christmas Eve. Rodriguez drove past the site on his way to an event and saw construction underway.
After the event, Stennett and Rodriguez “got back in the car and drove up to the site to ask the contractors what was up, but they didn’t have any information,” said Stennett.
After a few months’ investigation, Stennett and Rodriguez said they the mayor’s office had given the Fire Department permission to build a temporary parking lot –information that proved erroneous.
“The FDNY plans to use the location for an EMS station, not a parking lot for ambulances,” said Dwyer. “This is not a temporary station.”
As construction began in Washington Heights, residents were unaware of the city’s plans.
Community Board 12 had given an EMS station higher priority than affordable housing last year on a capital request. But local leaders take issue with the construction of an EMS station.
“After the FDNY took possession of the property, they had also written to the mayor’s office requesting that the zoning regulations be overridden, which meant completely overlooking the community,” said Stennett.
“Community Board 12 ranked as number two the request to acquire property and construct an EMS station, and as number three the construction of affordable housing,” said Community Board 12 Chair Pamela Palanque-North. “We did not specify that this had to be at West 172nd Street.”
“The station has been on the agenda over the past 10 years,” said Community Board member Zead Ramadan. When residents called 911, “we wanted the response time to decrease. We wanted the response time to go down 10 minutes, 12 minutes.”
Community Board 12 lobbied for an EMS station, Ramadan said, “but not in a residential area where it drives everyone crazy.”
Palanque-North added that the board received notice of the construction in late June, just before it took a summer break.
“This is about cooperation. These are two critical needs,” said Palanque-North. “Asking someone to decide makes no sense to me. We need the FDNY to come to the table and negotiate whether or not there is an opportunity to have a mixed-use site.”
So far no such negotiations have taken place, but the Fire Department argues that it have been in talks with Community Board 12 for years.
“The community board and the FDNY have spoken for the last 15 years about a site for a new EMS Station,” said Dwyer in his email. “Washington Heights is the second busiest area of the city in terms of EMS responses.“
Stennett, however, pointed out that the densely populated Heights has few other sites for new housing.“As tight as we are and as dense as we are, in terms of being able to have sites to provide affordable housing and daycare, this robs the community,” she said.
Lack of affordable housing has sent Washington Heights residents to the Bronx for lower rent, Rodriguez frequently says.
“My rent has always gone up,” said Elizabeth Espinosa, who sat on the stoop of the W. 169th Street building where she’s lived for 30 years. “I see people moving out and the landlords fix the apartment and then charge five times my rent.”
Alejandro Garcia, who has lived in the same building for 26 years, says the landlord adds rooms to apartments to overcharge new tenants. “They put up walls and automatically add a room and charge over $2,000, easy,” said Garcia. “My rent is controlled, but my people are not the ones moving in anymore.”
Nevertheless, the Fire Department has already begun the initial clearing and cleanup of the site and utility work is well underway, according to Dwyer. “There are no alternative sites in the area for this station,” he said.