Rivera Threatens “No” Vote on Tech Hub If City Refuses Zoning Protections

Rendering of new Union Square Tech Hub. Image via NYC EDC.

Rendering of new Union Square Tech Hub. Image via NYC EDC.

At a marathon public hearing today, City Council member Carlina Rivera reaffirmed her commitment to vote against a proposed tech hub on 14th Street if the city refuses to rezone blocks to the south of the development site.

The Union Square Tech Training Center would be a 21-story complex on a city-owned parcel that once housed a P.C. Richard & Son store. The partners — including RAL Development Services and the tech training non-profit Civic Hall — hope to create a digital skills training center, flex-office space for startups, market rate office space for established firms and a food hall.

While there’s widespread support for a training facility serving local low-income residents, many East Village activists fear the tower would be a catalyst for more out-of-scale projects and displacement of rent stabilized tenants and independent businesses. The project, which requires zoning changes, is undergoing the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The City Council will likely only vote in favor of the ULURP if Rivera, the local representative, supports it. As a candidate, she vowed to block any proposal if there were no zoning protections.

After approval by the City Planning Commission, the application went before the Council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises today. In introductory remarks, Rivera said she considers it part of her mission to create good jobs for her community in City Council District 2. But she added, “the vision for this area must include protections from continued out-of-scale and financially out-of-reach development.” 

“Since the certification of this application,” said Rivera, “I have felt the community’s requests for land use protections have not been seriously considered.” The Council member, who has been in negotiations with administration officials, asserted that concerns from residents about over-development, “have been pushed aside in the interest of expediting a project that relevant agencies would have us believe, incorrectly in my view, should be considered in isolation of its surroundings…”

Rivera has also been seeking guarantees from the city and the developers that scholarships will be offered to local residents and that the tech center will truly be serving the community. “However,” she asserted, “the conversations I have had about the on-site benefits as currently proposed have fallen short of what a city-owned project should provide.”

“Only with a comprehensive, wholistic approach to both access to technology and protections of our vibrant neighborhood,” warned Rivera, “can I vote confidently for this project, and right now that vote is seriously in question.”

At today’s hearing, there was a parade of speakers — people extolling the virtues of the tech center and others demanding zoning protections for the 3rd and 4th Avenue corridors.

Among those testifying in support of the project was Aixa Torres, president of the tenant association of the Alfred E. Smith Houses. She believes the facility would provide invaluable training to low-income youth on the Lower East Side, enabling them to access high-paying jobs.

A leading critic of the tech hub, Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, testified, “We are more than willing to accept a Tech Hub on 14th Street, even one larger and more commercial than current zoning allows. But not at the expense of our neighborhoods.  And not when it is unnecessary to do so.  We have proposed reasonable zoning measures that would protect neighborhood character and encourage or require the inclusion of affordable housing.  But the City has consistently said no.”

Community Board 3 approved a resolution in support of the project and called for zoning protections for the surrounding area. The board, however, declined to make approval conditional on zoning changes. This afternoon, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said she feels strongly that the tech hub proposal should go forward, but she also backed Rivera’s call for zoning protections.

The city would collect $2.3 million in annual rent from the development team, about half what a standard market rate tenant would be paying. Rivera wants to see an additional floor added for technology training (in the current plan, the subsidized tech center would cover three levels). The Council member said she expects to resume negotiaitions with the city in the next week or two.

The project is a major initiative of the city’s Economic Development Corp. EDC officials have called their talks with Rivera productive, and say they’re looking forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks ahead. City planning officials have repeatedly rejected pleas to limit building height along the 3rd and 4th Avenue corridors, saying those major streets are suitable for large-scale commercial development.