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Cobbs Hill Village fight continues 

As one lawsuit awaits a decision, a second suit has been filed with the State Supreme Court to stop redevelopment of the Cobbs Hill Village Apartments on Norris Drive next to the popular city park.

The latest legal action was taken by a coalition of the apartments' tenants, neighborhood associations, and activist groups against the City of Rochester, City Council, Mayor Lovely Warren, Plymouth Gardens, Inc., and Rochester Management, the non-profit that owns and operates the apartments.

The suit says that Rochester Management has violated deed restrictions by renting to people who weren't city residents and that it has used revenue from the property for purposes other than mortgage payments and upkeep.

The suit also alleges that in its 2009 request that the city extend the company's ownership of the property, Rochester Management exaggerated he amount of repairs needed at Cobbs Hill Village. At the time, Rochester Management needed the extension to get a new mortgage. The suit argues that little of the money from the mortgage was used to repair the Cobbs Hill apartments.

Another issue deals with whether City Council mistakenly entered into a lease. Earlier this year, Council voted to permit Rochester Management to refinance three of its properties and extend its ownership of Cobbs Hill Village to 2061, says Richard Curtis, the coalition's attorney. The city will receive a payment of $325,000 when the properties are refinanced. Curtis believes that payment in exchange for the extension could constitute a lease.

"It's going to be up to the court to decide if it was a lease," he says. That's an issue, because Council approved the refinancing in 5-to-4 vote, while three-quarters of Council's members have to approve entering into a lease.

The latest suit differs from the earlier suit, which argues primarily that the City Planning Commission was wrong in determining that the redevelopment project would have no significant impact on the environment. Critics of the project have challenged that decision largely due to the project's location adjacent to the park.

The redevelopment of the Cobbs Hill Village apartments has been met with fierce resistance from the beginning. Rochester Management's plans call for demolishing the existing six one-story buildings, which have 60 apartment units, and replacing them with 104 units in six two- and three-story buildings.

The property is deeded for low-income senior housing. Rochester Management has promised to keep rental rates at the current level for all existing tenants who move into the new units, and 20 of the new units will always be dedicated to very low-rent apartments. Those 20 units will be new and larger, but that's fewer units than the current 60 units that have very low rents.

Although the project's many critics include neighborhood groups, neighbors, and tenants, it's also had strong support from some major local non-profit groups that serve low-income Rochesterians, including Action for a Better Community, Ibero-American Action League, and Flower City Habitat.

The project's critics have maintained that the new construction is unnecessary and that Rochester Management could affordably rehab the existing apartments.

Rochester Management President Peggy Hill has expressed frustration at the delays, saying that the firm has held numerous public meetings and that it has made changes to the design for the project as a result of critics' concerns. The redesigns and delays have cost the company about $1 million, she says.

In a recent written statement, Hill said Rochester Management had planned to begin construction on the new buildings after receiving approval from the city last July, but litigation has held things up. "We are disappointed by the continued delays but remain fully committed to moving this important affordable senior housing project forward," she said.

City officials declined to comment on the issue because of the ongoing litigation.

Whether continued litigation will eventually derail the project is unclear, but one thing is certain: the opposition to it isn't going away anytime soon. The project's opponents continue to argue that the new apartments will reduce the amount of low-income senior housing in the city. But it's the project's proximity to the park that has remained a major obstacle.

What it boils down to is that the existing structures on Norris Drive are unobtrusive, says coalition attorney Curtis.

"You're not going to be able to see Cobbs Hill anymore," he says. "The overall belief is this monstrosity doesn't belong next to the most popular and probably most-used park in the city of Rochester."

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