(Opinion) Union Square Tech Hub Approval is a Bad Deal For a Community Reeling From Overdevelopment

Rendering: Union Square Tech Training Center.

Rendering provided by GVSHP shows differences between what could have been built on the site previously and what developers intend to build under new zoning recently approved by the City Council.

The following op/ed was written by Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation. The Lo-Down 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

Last week the City Council, following the lead of local City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, approved Mayor de Blasio’s large commercial upzoning for a piece of city-owned land on 14th Street for construction of a 23-story “Tech Hub.”  Even though Councilmember Rivera promised that she would not support such a deal without comprehensive zoning or landmark protections for the surrounding Greenwich Village and East Village neighborhoods, that’s exactly what happened.  Now, unfortunately, the vote and the resulting development will increase the pressure on the surrounding neighborhood for more out-of-scale and out-of-character development, such as the 300+ ft. tall condos and office towers, and 300+ room hotels, proliferating now in the area between Union Square and Astor Place.

There’s been a lot misinformation promulgated about the Council vote and what it means.  Here are some of the common questions that have been raised, along with some cold hard facts:

Didn’t the deal include the zoning protections people were asking for?  Not even remotely.  The ‘protections’ included in the Tech Hub deal are a fraction of a fraction of what the community was fighting for, and what Councilmember Rivera committed in writing to condition her support upon – and that’s being generous.  We called for comprehensive zoning protections for the University Place, Broadway, and Third and Fourth Avenue corridors with reasonable height limits for new development where none currently exist, prohibitions on large commercial developments like hotels and office buildings in predominantly residential areas, and the addition or reinforcement of incentives for including or preserving affordable housing as part of any new development.  We got none of these.

The only zoning measure we got was a commitment by the City to implement a requirement for special permits for new hotels in the area.  Aside from not addressing the height or size of new developments in any way, this would not affect uses like office buildings which are going up where they don’t belong, or prevent out-of-scale high-rise condos, or do anything about including or preserving affordable housing in new developments. It also doesn’t affect about half the affected area whatsoever, including the University Place corridor and the blocks east and west, because large hotels are already not allowed there, and therefore not the problem. And it might not actually even do anything about hotels anywhere; under this requirement they could still be built, just with the approval of the City Council and City Planning Commission.  Hotels could even be built without their approval; the new requirement will take many months if not more to take effect.  So the announcement that such a measure will be implemented down the road is really just an advance call to developers, letting them know if they want to build a hotel in the area without having to secure a special permit, just get started over the next several months.  Meanwhile, the added development pressure from the approval of the giant new “Tech Hub” on 14th Street is now underway.

As an alternative to the zoning protections we proposed, we asked that a large chunk of the historic buildings in the affected area – about 193 of them — be considered for historic district designation.  Relatively speaking, this would be a small historic district (the neighboring Greenwich Village Historic District by comparison has over 2,300 buildings), and includes some incredibly important works of architecture and buildings which were home to noteworthy innovators in commerce and the arts.  What the Tech Hub deal included was a promise to consider landmark designation of just seven of those buildings, or 3.6% of those we asked for.  To make matters worse, while the identity of some of those buildings remains a secret, so far all indications are they are buildings which would never be endangered by potential development, because of their size, or because they are now co-op or condo buildings, or both.  And the commitment on the part of the City is only to consider them for landmark designation, not to actually landmark them. So we may get as much as 3.6% of what we were asking for, or as little as 0%.

Aren’t these deals always a compromise, and everyone gives on something?  Not for the developers.  Actually, the landmarking and zoning plans we and others asked for were already compromises, and what we got was roughly 3-4% of them.  The developers of the Tech Hub, on the other hand, got 100% of the commercial upzoning they requested, which will allow them to make a very handsome profit off of this incredibly valuable piece of city-owned land.  No surprise: the developers are major donors to Mayor de Blasio, whose Economic Development Corporation joined them as co-applicants for this commercial upzoning.

Screenshot 2018-08-15 07.28.45

Wouldn’t we have just gotten a big glass office tower on the Tech Hub site if the City Council had voted the rezoning down?  Not really.  The rezoning which the developer asked for and got here allowed the construction of a significantly larger commercial office building on this site than is currently allowed.  In fact, the zoning for this site was designed to encourage a shorter, residential building.  Plus, this is city-owned land – it’s not private land which a developer could just do whatever they wanted with.  It would be scandalous for the Mayor to have tried to give away this incredibly valuable piece of public land in the heart of Manhattan for a purpose other than one that serves the public.

Wasn’t this deal necessary to get the good things the Tech Hub includes, like job training and support for start-ups?  Absolutely not.  The Tech Hub does include some very important and valuable programs and services for New Yorkers who have traditionally been left out of the ‘tech boom,’ and for small businesses that could use help starting out.   That’s why we were never opposed to the Tech Hub in and of itself – only this particular plan and its impact on the surrounding neighborhood if protections for Greenwich Village and the East Village were not included.  More than 40% of the floor area of the planned Tech Hub in this deal is for purely market-rate commercial office and retail space, i.e. nothing more than incredibly profitable money-making square footage for the developer.  All of the “good stuff” from the Tech Hub – the job training, the skills development, the start-up space – could have easily fit into a much smaller building constructed on this site without the very large commercial upzoning just granted.  That upzoning just allows the developer to add the very lucrative market-rate space, off of which a killing will be made. In fact, an original version of the Tech Hub plan required no zoning change at all, and did not have the ten floors of for-profit commercial and office space. So an appropriately-sized Tech Hub with just the public benefits could have been built on this site without the large commercial upzoning that increases development pressure on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Will the Tech Hub and its commercial upzoning really increase development pressure on the surrounding neighborhood?  Yes, according to Councilmember Rivera herself, among others.  When Rivera ran for City Council last year, she said about the planned Tech Hub:  “without the needed zoning protections for the neighborhood, [the Tech Hub] would lead to acceleration in out of scale development for the surrounding residential neighborhood.”  And she’s not the only one.  Multiple developers and many in the real estate press have cited the proposed Tech Hub as a reason for the sudden boom in commercial development such as office buildings and hotels in this area in recent months – an area which saw almost no such similar development any time over the last half-century (prior to the last year or so, new development in this area was almost exclusively either residential – mostly conversion of existing buildings to living spaces – or dorms, which a rezoning GVSHP and others secured in 2010 now helps prevent). 

City Council member Carlina Rivera with Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

City Council member Carlina Rivera with Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Isn’t this just the beginning of the process; can’t Councilmember Rivera continue to work towards getting more protections for the neighborhood?  She can try, but having now given away her vote, it’s incredibly unlikely, and would likely come too late.   For several years now, Mayor de Blasio has adamantly refused to consider zoning or landmark protections for this area – he has made that 100% clear.  The only way we were going to get him to move was to make it a condition of him getting the approvals he needed from the City Council for the Tech Hub.  Now that Councilmember Rivera has given her approval, all her leverage – and our community’s leverage – is gone.  We will try, and we will do everything we can to ensure that Councilmember Rivera continues to try.  But any knowledgeable observer of how this Mayor works knows that the only way to get anything out of him is through horse-trading and deal-making.  And this deal is now done, and the surrounding neighborhood got little or nothing in return.  Development pressure is moving through this area incredibly quickly, with a half dozen developments underway or planned right now.  Even in the unlikely event protections were secured in the several months or a few years down the road, they would likely be too late to impact the development juggernaut now underway.

Isn’t what you were asking for –comprehensive protections, put in place at the same time as the City Council vote approving the project – unrealistic as part of a deal to rezone a single site?  No – it’s exactly what was done just two years earlier in the West Village.  In 2016 we called for a historic district of about the same size as the one we asked for here, zoning protections covering the entire Greenwich Village waterfront, and a prohibition on out-of-place big-box stores and destination retail as part of any deal for a rezoning the St. John’s Terminal site in the West Village.  We also demanded that all those measures be put in place before the City Council gave its final approval to the rezoning, so it was not a ‘promise’ which might or might not be kept, but a done deal.  And that’s exactly what we got.  And if you think such an outcome is too heavy a lift for a freshman City Councilmember, that deal was put together by then-freshman City Councilmember Corey Johnson, who also managed to make a whole array of other public benefits and funding part of the deal.

Andrew Berman of GVSHP.

Andrew Berman of GVSHP.

Isn’t this really all the Mayor’s fault?  He definitely bears primary responsibility, but he could not have done it alone.  There’s no denying the Mayor set the terms of this game, as he has in so many cases – demanding a large upzoning that will benefit his benefactors in the real estate industry by claiming it is the only way to get some needed public good (usually it’s affordable housing, which was noticeably absent from this deal).  But the City Council, and City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, did not have to play that game.  In fact, the Mayor could not have succeeded without their vote of approval (it should be noted that Borough President Gale Brewer also approved of this deal, without the neighborhood protections). It’s telling that both the Mayor and the Real Estate Board of New York issued press releases after the vote praising Councilmember Rivera for supporting this deal.

Rivera could have instead stood firm and told the Mayor “when I make a promise, I keep it – the only way you’re getting my vote on the Tech Hub is if you also agree to the neighborhood protections.”  If she had, we would have likely gotten those protections.  But even if not, and she kept her pledge and voted down the commercial upzoning for the Tech Hub site, all the good parts of the Tech Hub could have still been built on the site.  Would the Mayor have wanted to do so without the big payoff for his real estate benefactors?  Probably not.  But Rivera could have insisted that the Mayor follow through and build the Tech Hub with just the job training, skills development, and start-up space, and without the huge increase for high-end office and commercial space.  We would have stood with her, as no doubt would have many others — just as we hoped and believed that Rivera, based upon her promises, would stand with us.

Unfortunately, that did not happen.  What did happen is some real estate developers got hold of a prime piece of public land in our neighborhood they will make a huge profit off of, after donating generously to the Mayor.  Greenwich Village and the East Village got one of their first and only commercial upzonings in generations, which will vastly increase pressure for big new hotels, office buildings, and condo high-rises in the area.  And our only real chance to get significant zoning or landmark protections for the parts of the neighborhood to prevent it from being transformed into an extension of Midtown South and ‘Silicon Alley’ was given away in exchange for measures so minimal and flimsy they could easily have no effect on future development in the area whatsoever.