(Opinion) Union Square Tech Hub Must Serve Community Interests

Photo: Property Shark.

Photo: Property Shark.

The following opinion piece was written by Enrique Cruz. While Cruz is a member of Community Board 3’s land use committee, he submitted this op/ed as a local resident, not in any official capacity with CB3.  It concerns the Union Square Tech Training Center, which is the subject of an important land use hearing by Community Board 3 tonight. The Lo-Down routinely accepts op/ed submissions relevant to the Lower East Side community. Previously, we published pieces on this topic from Alan Van Capelle of the Educational Alliance and Andrew Berman from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. 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

On 114-124 East 14th Street in Manhattan sits a property that, based on all public records available, was slated for development to provide housing for homeless families back in 1992.    Loans were issued by the New York State Housing Finance Agency in 1992 for this purpose, including clearly recorded covenants on title in regards to this fact.  However, for reasons unbeknownst to most of our community, that property was never built for its intended use back in 1992.  Instead, it was leased out to PC Richards which provided a store for our community to purchase appliances.

Fast forward to today and now PC Richards lease has expired and they no longer occupy the space.  This vacant public land which is zoned for either commercial or residential, now offers a whole world of possibilities on what the city, with the consent of the community, can provide.  However, our community is currently being offered only one option to consider.  The Mayor and his administration are asking our community to consider allowing the city to offer a 99 year lease to a private developer for the development of a 100% commercial property.  The idea is that — in return for the city providing the 99 year lease — the developer will offer benefits to the community for a set term of 30 years.  Now, besides the fact that this type of structure has always bewildered me; a 99 year lease from the city with only a 30 year commitment to provide community benefits from the developer would seem a very uneven proposition.

However, let’s set that aside for now.  The current option being offered to our community for consideration is a development that is geared toward the tech industry.  The developer being considered is RAL Development and they are proposing to build a 240,000 square foot, 21-story commercial property.  This proposal which is already being negotiated by our local government and this developer for public land, should have very specific and outlined benefits to our community.  If this proposal is accepted and moves forward, these benefits should be direct and the community should have a major role in outlining what those benefits should be.  Once those benefits have been formulated with the community, those benefits must be inserted into the contract that binds this agreement, as a commitment by the developer so as to be enforceable by law.  I’m sure we in this community know all too well what words and promises look like, when they are not written into contracts that are enforceable by law.   

Now if we look at this public land historically, we can understand that the community (residents and business owners of CB3) should be able to receive very direct and tangible benefits.  If this proposal is to be moved forward by our local government and representatives, direct benefits must be tangible.

It would mean that our children (residents of CB3) can access these learning programs.  It also would mean that low-income youth from all over our community (residents of CB3) have some sort of preference built in to the admissions program, scholarship programs and maybe even full rides if they cannot afford the 50% tuition. That the so-called step up offices actually have a discount built into the rates for new entrepreneurs, especially if they are from our community (residents or entrepreneurs of CB3).  That the retail being offered should have some sort of preference in the application process, for current community (CB3) business owners or local community residents.  It would also mean that the community space being offered to the community for a minimum of 32 days a year at a discount, actually has a set discounted rate.   

If these direct benefits can be negotiated into the contract by our local government and representatives, then this would represent a real benefit to our community.  However, based on recent presentations by the developer and the NYC Economic Development Corporation, there is a long gap to bridge.  Furthermore, it seems that when any questions arise that require detail, the answers provided are immersed in vagueness.

Lastly but as important, our community, local representatives, and local government should put protections in place to mitigate any negative impacts this huge glass tower will create.  Our community and the city at large have suffered from the effects of displacement that comes from new large-scale developments.  We have also read what happens to some communities when the tech industry begins to settle its often large footprint on it. 

It would be wise for our local officials and our city government to sidestep some of those negative impacts by implementing zoning changes that would prevent further displacement of our residents.  I can understand how a community, its local representatives, and local government are unable to prevent large-scale developments on private as-of-right land, which further exacerbates the displacement of large swaths of our community.   However, when we are currently talking about 114-124 East 14th St. (public land in our community); not only can and should our local government follow the will of the people, they should be honored to ensure that the community receives all of the benefits and protections possible.