(Opinion) Mayor’s Union Square Tech Center Fails to Protect Community, Provide Real Local Benefits

Part of a flyer prepared by GVSHP.

Part of a flyer prepared by GVSHP.

The following opinion piece was written by Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Yesterday we published an opinion piece from the Educational Alliance’s Alan van Capelle in support of the proposed Union Square Tech Training Center. Berman’s organization has been leading opposition to the proposal. The City Planning Commission yesterday certified the zoning application required to facilitate the project into the city’s Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process. The land use application will be the subject of a key Community Board 3 hearing Wednesday, Feb. 7.  The Lo-Down routinely accepts op/ed submissions relevant to the Lower East Side community. Opinion pieces do not reflect the editorial position of The Lo-Down, but only the viewpoints of each individual author. To submit an editorial/letter to the editor, use the following email: info@thelodownny.com

Mayor Bill de Blasio has filed an application for a rezoning needed to allow a slick new “tech hub” to be built on East 14th Street just east of Fourth Avenue, on the current site of a P.C. Richard and Son store.  Sandwiched between two high-rise New York University dorms, the new building would tower over its neighbors and form the lynchpin of a new “Silicon Alley” the Mayor hopes to develop between Union Square and Astor Place.

Whatever the virtues of the proposed center in terms of jobs and job training (and many critics say the purported public benefits are vague at best and offer few assurances that average New Yorkers and local residents will in fact benefit in any way), there are some serious downsides to the project, which will be largely market-rate commercial space and not reserved for community benefits, as its proponents would have you believe.  Unaddressed, these issues could accelerate troubling trends in the surrounding neighborhood, and cause the administration to miss a critical opportunity to provide what the mayor claims is his top priority — affordable housing.

The P.C. Richard site was zoned several years ago to encourage residential rather than commercial development, and was supposed to be developed at a more modest scale than the Mayor proposes. And several elected officials and the local community board had long called for the site to be used for sorely lacking affordable housing. By seeking to increase the allowable size and height of development, pursue commercial rather than residential construction, and exclude affordable housing, the mayor’s plan flies in the face of prior planning and community wishes for the site.

But that’s true of more than just this one site. We’re seeing the same trend of oversized, largely commercial and affordable-housing-free development all along the blocks from the P.C. Richard site down to Astor Place, between Third Avenue and University Place.

The examples are numerous. At 110 University Place, a nearly 300-foot-tall condo tower has replaced Bowlmor Lanes. A 232-foot-tall commercial and residential building is under construction at 809 Broadway, and at the old St. Denis Hotel at 80 E. 11th St. / 799 Broadway,  plans are moving ahead for a “Death Star II” — an office building that would replicate the black-glass office tower at 51 Astor Place, so nicknamed for its “Star Wars”-like aesthetic. This last project could easily match or exceed the size of these other neighboring ones in the pipeline.

Further east we are seeing the same trend. Mayor de Blasio’s campaign donor and political ally David Lichtenstein demolished five walk-up tenements with a hundred units of permanent and in some cases affordable housing to make way for a 313-room hotel under construction at 112 East 11th St., across from Webster Hall. (Perhaps coincidentally, Lichtenstein also serves on the board of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the agency behind the “tech hub” plan for the P.C. Richard site, and the tech hub developer, RAL Development, and their lobbyist James Capalino, have also been  major donors to the mayor.)  On the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue and 10th Street, a 12-story condo tower is rising, and the 12-story Hyatt Hotel was built at Fourth Avenue and 13th St. just a few years ago.

That’s a lot of very large development, most of it commercial, in just a dozen or so blocks. And the pace is clearly accelerating, partly in response to the Mayor’s announcement of the tech hub plan. Approval and construction of that project will only hasten this trend.

This does not have to be the case. If the mayor is going to rezone the P.C. Richard site for larger commercial development and ignore affordable housing needs, he can offset that by helping to protect the scale and largely residential character of the blocks to the south, and encourage the creation of affordable housing. So far, though, he has resisted doing so.

More than three years ago, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation proposed a “contextual” rezoning of the University Place and Broadway corridors to protect the scale of the area, reinforce its residential character, and encourage the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments. For 3rd and 4th Avenues, we have proposed eliminating a loophole in the existing zoning which allows developers to get around existing affordable housing incentives by building purely commercial developments at a larger size than market-rate residential ones. This would help reinforce the predominately residential character of the area and increase the chances of affordable housing preservation and inclusion in new developments.

Both plans have been endorsed by local elected officials, the community board, and an overwhelming majority of residents. But thus far the Mayor has adamantly opposed such plans.

We and a broad coalition of residents, affordable housing groups, community organizations, merchant leaders, and elected officials are therefore saying that the Tech Hub should only be approved by the City Council if accompanied by these types of protections for the surrounding neighborhood. Given the rate of oversized and out-of-character development these areas are experiencing, there is no denying they need such protections.  But there is also no denying that the Tech Hub will accelerate and worsen this problem if these protections don’t come along with it.

This could end up a win-win, in spite of the Mayor’s one-sided approach.  With the appropriate guaranteed public benefits attached to the Tech Hub and protections for the surrounding neighborhoods, such a deal could make things better, not worse, than the status quo. Right now the Mayor’s plan will largely benefit his campaign fundraisers and political allies. But if Councilmember Rivera and the City Council stand firm and tell the Mayor the only way to get their needed approval for the Tech Hub will be with these provisions attached, our neighborhoods and the entire city will have reason to celebrate.

Andrew Berman is executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.