In the coming years, Lee Sengbusch hopes he can keep living in his current housing.
“It’s simple, and simple is all I need at this point in my life,” he says.
The rent for his one-bedroom apartment at Cobbs Hill Village Senior Living is affordable at about $300 a month. It works for Sengbusch, who is in his 70s and lives by himself on a fixed income. His unit is one of 60 nestled in the crook of Cobbs Hill, across from Lake Riley. It is shaded by trees and next door to basketball courts and baseball fields, a dog park, and a playground.
However, a $27.5 million development plan by property owner Rochester Management Inc. has begun. Plans call for tearing down and rebuilding those simple units into a mix of 104 units— studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments and townhouses housed in multi-level buildings. As the apartments are built, current residents will move from their old units into the new ones.
The process is a necessary change to modernize the apartments and bring much-needed improvements to the property, nonprofit Rochester Management says. The changes will increase the number of total units and the overall floor space per unit, grant access to new amenities, and increase security at the location.
“We are thrilled to be able to modernize Cobbs Hill Village for our residents and for other seniors in need of affordable housing, within the same footprint we have occupied since 1957,” said Peggy Hill, Rochester Management president and CEO, in a statement last month.
Phase one of the project, the completion of the first apartment building, is expected to be fully complete next May, when current residents will move to the new building. Phase two—a second apartment building—will require another year. The third phase, which will build 24 townhouse units—four one-bedroom and 20 two-bedroom units—will be completed even further in the future.
The start of construction in an empty field on the property marked a key milestone in the history of the Cobbs Hill Village Project, a lengthy and at times contentious process. From 2014 onward, the project has been drawn up, scrutinized, challenged, revised and challenged again before work finally began.
When the first trees fell in the field in April, Sengbusch says, the feeling among those residents watching was one of “surreal disbelief.” On the other hand, Hill says residents she has spoken with have been “very excited” at the opportunity to move into new units.
Though the company has grandfathered in current residents, made assurances that units will fall within affordability limits and said this development will upgrade and expand senior housing, Cobbs Hill Village tenants including Sengbusch as well as neighborhood and environmental groups are worried that this change could have negative effects.
“It feels like we are selling out our public land,” says Mary Lupien, a City Councilmember and supporter of the Cobbs Hill Village Tenants’ Association, a resident organization that opposes the new construction. “A public park should be something that is preserved for everybody.”
A long road to approval
Rochester Management operates as a nonprofit provider of more than 3,600 affordable housing units for veterans, senior citizens and students across the Finger Lakes region. According to its project website, the current modernization effort at the Cobbs Hill apartments, which are available only to people over age 55, began in 2014.
“Given that the apartment complex was built nearly 60 years ago, it is in need of significant upgrades apart from the annual maintenance work we undertake at each of our properties,” the website states. “Further, many people over 55 today are living longer, healthier and more active lives than their parents and grandparents did after WWII, so our tenants’ needs are changing.”
While the buildings are structurally sound, Rochester Management wanted to alter its “motel-style” apartments to include a community building where residents can gather, new exterior-finish materials and colors, new landscape design, increased pedestrian connectivity, a community building for activities, library, computer lab and fitness area.
“We look forward to providing apartment/townhouse homes for seniors at affordable rates which will help encourage vibrant, engaged living. The units are intentionally designed to be adaptable as seniors age. They will be able to continue to live in the community they love even if changes in mobility occur,” Hill says. “We are very happy to be able to increase the supply of much-needed affordable housing for seniors in Rochester.”
Financing for the project was secured through the state Mitchell Lama Housing Fund, the Community Preservation Corp., the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and Rochester Management’s own funds.
Then Mayor Lovely Warren originally opposed the Cobbs Hill project in 2016 and asked Rochester Management to revise its architectural plans. Warren was supportive of the rewritten plan, which was sent to and approved by City Council in 2018 in a 5-4 vote.
(Mitch Gruber, Willie Lightfoot and Michael Patterson, who still hold office, as well as City Council President Loretta Scott and Vice President Adam McFadden voted in favor of the project. Elaine Spaull, Molly Clifford, Jacklyn Ortiz and Malik Evans voted against.)
Following the approval, groups opposed to the rebuild sued Rochester Management but ultimately lost their case in 2019. A further appeal of that suit by the groups also failed two years later.
As COVID-related delays occurred, the Coalition for Cobbs Hill, which opposes the new buildings, made a last-ditch effort to appeal to new City Councilmembers and Evans, who was now mayor, for a possible reprieve.
“Malik was the only City Council person who said, ‘I want to hear what the tenants have to say,’” says Sengbusch, who was an active member of the coalition. “He came and asked questions and listened to us.”
But with the field work to allow construction of the first new apartment building, the redevelopment plan appears to have cleared its final hurdle.
Cobbs Hill Park was developed in the early 1900s. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who, along with his father, planned for “an emerald ring” of parks around the city of Rochester, wrote in 1911: “The line of hills between Highland Park and Winton Road, of which Pinnacle Hill and Cobbs Hill are the highest knobs, should be controlled by the city and used for park purposes. Nowhere in the near vicinity of the city are there any heights from which so extended and impressive an outlook can be had.”
It took another 30 years for the land where Cobbs Hill Village is located to be used. During World War II, that area served as an army barracks, a prisoner of war camp, and then housing for returning GIs. In 1956, the city sold the property—formerly part of Cobbs Hill Park—on the condition it was to be used for senior citizens residing in Rochester. The deed conveying the property also provided that ownership of the property would revert to the city once the mortgage on it had been repaid in full.
(The land was set to revert to the city in 2009. Instead, City Council approved an agreement extending the city’s reversion interest to 2061.)
Sengbusch says he first was aware of Rochester Management’s development plan after it was announced at a 2016 summer cookout.
At the picnic, Sengbusch, who is president of the Cobbs Hill Village Tenants’ Association, says Rochester Management representatives brought up what they called “modernization” efforts.
Specifically, Rochester Management said major accessibility upgrades to bathrooms, kitchens, and heating systems were required. While a few apartments had received improvements, the company said it was impossible and impractical to go apartment by apartment.
Sengbusch’s unit is part of a single-story building with a bedroom, living room and a bathroom, which is plenty for his lifestyle. He says the breeze that comes in from the back window is usually enough to keep the entire area cool; in addition, there is plenty of storage space for his bike and large prints of photography he occasionally donates to charity events.
While the kitchen is small and some of the cupboards and appliances are old, Sengbusch only cooks for himself and thinks the decor is a matter of personal taste.
In his seven years of living at the location, Sengbusch has had no issues with Rochester Management’s upkeep and maintenance of the buildings, which made the push for modernization confusing to him.
“Our jaws all dropped. I still remember looking around the room and thinking, ‘What?’” he says.
With that announcement, some residents joined the Coalition for Cobbs Hill, an organization dedicated to revitalizing the area that includes the ABC Streets Neighborhood Association, Friends of Washington Grove, Nunda Boulevard Association, the Sierra Club Rochester Region, and Upper Monroe Neighborhood Association.
In addition, inspired by the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester, Cobbs Hill Village formed its own tenants association. Sengbusch, a member of both the tenant group and the Coalition for Cobbs Hill, recalls that more than half of the village’s tenants attended the first meeting. That support, as well as from outside groups, was inspiring to him.
Hill says the cookout was part of Rochester Management’s resident-feedback process, which included meetings with each resident and hosting a series of design review meetings. In addition, over a nine-month period, the company carried out meetings that included representatives from Cobbs Hill Village, local neighborhood groups, the city of Rochester, and architects.
Assessing the property
One of the first actions the Coalition for Cobbs Hill took was to commission its own assessment of the property. Richard Rosen, a local architect whose work includes a role as president of Tempro Development, a nonprofit from Temple B’rith Kodesh serving the unhoused, surveyed the apartments in late 2016.
His report found that the buildings were in “excellent” condition with only the roof shingles written up in the New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal inspection records. Rosen found a lack of air conditioning and exhaust fans in the kitchens as well as some surface mildew. He also noted the five-inch step up from the curb to the apartments and the bathroom could inhibit accessibility to wheelchairs or those with ambulatory issues. No other major deficiencies were found in Rosen’s survey.
On the other hand, a 2017 report from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation determined that no adverse impact to historic resources would occur through the rebuild. The letter notes that the proposed construction would not be visible on Reservoir Drive and would not impede views of the city.
“I strongly believe the 60 brick cottages should be saved, the contract extended another 40 years, and Rochester Management should build elsewhere,” Rosen says, noting that there are alternative spots that would not require a teardown.
The company responded to Rosen’s report in the minutes of a December 2016 meeting stating: “We believe the review may have been limited to a few apartments and did not include a detailed review and inspections of mechanical systems, roof, etc. A physical needs inspection is typically performed by an engineer.
“The cost of maintaining the buildings are increasing as the years go by and the rents would not be able to remain the same,” the response continued.
A cost estimation for Rosen’s recommendations, including exhaust fans, sidewalk raising, radiator valve replacements and tub/shower upgrades, was $556,000.
Rochester Management maintains that the current facilities are not handicap accessible and too small to upgrade appliances. The company says its plans for more community spaces, such as a computer lab, a meeting area, and a fitness center will combat isolation. Rosen disagrees that transforming the units into traditional looking apartments, even with those features, will improve this issue.
“Individual units accessible at grade with parking adjacent are preferred to multi-family living requiring corridors, common stairs and elevators. Unsupervised common areas can present dangers of crime and undetected accidents for this vulnerable population,” Rosen wrote in his report, also noting that the alternative proposal of private upper balconies does little to help the issue of loneliness.
He also included an option for a modest single-story community building as part of his cost estimation, which would be accommodated at the northwest entry.
Sengbusch, for his part, says the residents enjoyed the prior system where the outdoor area in front of their parking space was used for socialization and checking up on vulnerable neighbors.
Cost and concerns
One of the primary concerns for residents continues to be rent, which currently ranges from $300 to $500 a month. When the modernization process was announced in 2016, a letter to Cobbs Hill residents stated the proposed rents were $657 for a one bedroom and $895 for a two bedroom, higher than tenants were used to.
“Everyone agrees we need more housing for low- and extremely low-income people, especially seniors. They want affordable housing in their backyard. Well, we already have the affordable housing in our backyard. That’s what (the tenants) are fighting for,” says Lupien.
Two years later, in a 2018 announcement, Rochester Management altered that pricing rate in the new apartment building to $332 for a studio apartment and $508 to $576 for a one-bedroom unit. The company also made assurances at that time that current residents will be grandfathered in under the same rent prices as before.
Proposed rents for two-bedroom units in the apartment buildings are between $850 and $925. Rents for the new townhouses would be $715 for one bedroom and $1,170 for two bedrooms. The company says that even at this pricing level, the majority of rents are still affordable for very low- and extremely low-income people.
“All units in the modernized Cobbs Hill Village will continue to be affordable under state guidelines, serving individuals earning 30 percent or less of the area median income (AMI) up to 80 percent of AMI,” Rochester Management’s website states, noting that as of April 1, 2018, this would be $15,550 (30 percent AMI) to $41,450 (80 percent AMI) for single-occupancy units.
“After the project is complete, Cobbs Hill Village will offer 72 units affordable to people earning 50 percent or less of AMI, compared to the 60 units it currently offers at this level,” the website continues.
Rochester Management has committed to ensuring that every current resident who wishes to remain in their apartments can do so. All residents will continue to pay the same rents, including existing utilities, as long as they live there. Even if a resident moves out, the company has guaranteed those units’ rents will remain at that level for 15 years. In addition, 20 of the 60 units will keep that rent level for 40 years.
“Rochester Management has made the commitment to maintain these rental guarantees in an effort to build an inclusive, diverse community and continue to serve those most in need,” Hill says.
Sengbusch says current residents had to push for that rental guarantee after modernization was introduced to them in 2016, while the company says this was part of its plans all along.
In total, following that 15-year guarantee, Cobbs Hill Village will offer 40 units at or below 50 percent AMI, 40 percent at 60 percent AMI and 24 units at 80 percent AMI.
Nationally, for those with a fixed income at a time of rising inflation and rent prices, affordable senior housing is an area of extreme need. A 2022 report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that over 10 million households headed by someone 65 or older pay more than a third of their income on housing with half of them paying more than 50 percent. Further, only 36 percent of income-eligible older adults receive federal housing assistance, and trends point to greater demand for support in the coming years.
Data from a 2017 JCHS report found that Rochester had a high percentage of older cost-burdened households. Close to 60 percent of those 65 years or older and over 50 percent of those 50 to 64 years old were paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing.
Another concern is the increased traffic—both from construction, which will take an estimated three years, and the increased number of tenants. Residents note there are many children and teenagers who use the facilities as well as plenty of sporting events that clog the street and grass parking.
According to the available documents, the Rochester Management plan has 80 parking spots divided among the four new buildings.
From an environmental angle, groups such as the Sierra Club Rochester Regional Group have voiced concerns that any construction, even without cutting trees down, will disturb their root structures. In particular, a large mature Korean evodia tree, which is native to Korea and parts of Southwestern China, is in the central area of Cobbs Hill Village and a unique part of the property. It is not marked for removal, but the construction will inevitably damage its root structures, groups say.
“lf multi-story buildings are erected in Cobbs Hill Village there will be significant tree die-off
along Norris Drive which will require further planting, perhaps on the opposite side of
Norris Drive, to diminish the visual impact of the property on the park,” a May 2019 document from the Coalition for Cobbs Hill states.
Rochester Management did alter its plans to limit the height of the apartment buildings. Hill also notes that an arborist analysis was included in the site plan approval process to identify mature trees that must remain on site and protected throughout the construction period.
An outline for a tree preservation plan at the Cobbs Hill Village site was created in 2017 by Urban Forest Diagnostics for architectural firm SWBR. The assessment was done according to industry standards and intended to protect the most mature trees in the area. Twenty-eight trees, which had diameters at breast height ranging from 12 to 48 inches, were recommended for removal.
“I seldom see this desire to plan for and enact tree preservations in large construction projects,” Urban Forest Diagnostics’ letter states. “Given this level of attention and preparation I am confident the largest number of mature trees will be saved such that they will continue to enhance the site and remain healthy well into the future.”
To ensure trees are protected and the plan is followed, Hill says the arborist will be part of the project team until construction is complete.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].