CB3 Tells City: Commit to Real Community Role in Deciding Fate of Former Trolley Space

Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space. Photo: NYC EDC.

Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space. Photo: NYC EDC.

Members of Community Board 3’s land use committee last night pressed city officials for a more robust role in deciding the future of the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal below Delancey Street.

In November, the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) put out a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for the site. After the community board complained about a lack of local consultation by the city, the EDC extended the deadline for submissions from Dec. 23 to Feb. 1. Last night, EDC Assistant Vice President Lusheena Warner and Merik Mulcahy, an associate who drafted the document, came to CB3’s land use committee to talk with board members about their concerns.

The forgotten trolley terminal space was not on anyone’s radar until September of 2011 when James Ramsey and Dan Barasch went public with their proposal to create an underground park using sunlight channeling technology (The Lowline). They have spent the past four years lobbying the MTA, which controlled the 60,000 sq. ft. terminal. It was a surprise to everyone two months ago when the city announced that it would be seeking proposals from interested developers. The RFEI asks for “plans involving the long-term lease and activation” of the site with an eye towards enhancing “connections to, and accessibility for, the surrounding community;” meeting community needs; and promoting economic development.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Last night, land use committee members said they appreciated the extension of time but also called for a lot more outreach in the community. One meeting, they told the officials, is just not enough.

The key question, said board member Damaris Reyes, is, “What constitutes a ‘community benefit’ in the publicly-owned site?” “Who gets to decide?,” she asked. She said the board has asked for a true community-driven process that goes well beyond the membership of the land use committee.

In response, Warner acknowledged the concerns and said. “There is definitely a role for the community.” When Reyes coyly asked, “Did you say you would involve us in the selection process?,” Warner replied, “I did not say that.” The officials said they would come back to the community board to “talk about the proposals.” But citing the city’s confidentiality rules for public bids, they said it would not be possible to discuss specific applicants. “We are not trying to select someone behind you back,” added Warner.

Committee members agreed that it was premature to tell the city their preferences for the space below Delancey Street. They pointed out that little is publicly known about the engineering constraints of a site that’s been dormant since 1947. “It’s not quite right,” said Harriet Cohen, “to start throwing around a lot of ideas” in the absence of details about what’s possible “in this very specific piece of real estate.” The EDC team acknowledged that there would be no city-driven analysis of the site; they’re relying on applicants to spell out what they think is feasible.

Dominic Berg, a former board chairperson, strongly encouraged the city to work with CB3 on a series of workshops/visioning sessions to solicit opinions about the site. “It will be easier for the EDC to have community buy-in (for the project that’s ultimately chosen) if we have workshops,” said Berg. “The EDC really needs to plan for that. Short of doing that, you’re going to hit a wall.” Mentioning that he’s been supportive of the Lowline, Berg acknowledged there could be other good ideas. “Everyone should understand the options,” he said.

Last month, CB3 approved a resolution urging the city to rescind the RFEI, giving the local community an opportunity to reshape the document to its liking. Warner made it clear the city would not be entertaining further delays. But she suggested there would be many more opportunities for community engagement. She was noncommittal about workshops, but said it’s something the EDC would consider.

After proposals are received, the city could take a variety of steps to activate the space. Last night, the officials said the site would be subject to ULURP, the city’s land use approval process. It requires consultations with the community boards and borough president, and the approval of the City Council. It remains to be seen whether the city will issue a separate Request for Proposals (RFP), or begin negotiations with a developer responding to the RFEI.

A new resolution approved by the committee last night called for a real “community process” to develop local priorities for the site and to guide the selection of a developer. It memorialized EDC’s commitment to come back to the board with information about proposals under consideration. And the resolution stated that community engagement should inform both the selection process as well as the implementation of the winning proposal.

The elephant in the room last night was, of course, The Lowline itself. Some members of the panel are supporters of the underground park proposal. Others are skeptical of its merits. But that debate will take place another day. First, the community board wants guidance from the EDC about the range of possibilities in the former trolley space. Then it will start to develop guidelines. It has been three years since the board voted unanimously in support of the Lowline project. Eventually, board members will be called on to reaffirm their support or to reverse their earlier position.

City Extends Deadline For Williamsburg Trolley Terminal Site to Feb. 1

Trolley site below Delancey Street. Image from NYC EDC.

Trolley site below Delancey Street. Image from NYC EDC.

The city’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC) is giving groups interested in proposing ideas for the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space  a little bit more time. After hearing criticism about its handling of a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) in the site from members of Community Board 3, the EDC today extended the deadline from Dec. 23 to Feb. 1.

Last week, Community Board 3’s land use committee approved a resolution asking the city to rescind the RFEI and give the community board an opportunity to help shape a new document. While CB3 was advised that the Request for Expressions of Interest would be going out, board members wanted to see more collaboration from the city. During the past several years, a local group has been lobbying the MTA for access to the 60,000 space for the Lowline underground park. The dormant trolley terminal is leased by the MTA but owned by New York City.

In a letter to EDC President Maria Torres-Springer, City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer expressed support for the community board’s position. Extending the deadline, they wrote, would allow the city to “solicit a variety of proposals and garner increased community feedback.” They also requested added site visits for groups interested in submitting proposals, as well as “clear opportunities for increased communication with Community Board 3 and elected officials on ways to engage with future progress on the site.”

In a phone interview this afternoon, CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li said the board would like to see a clear timeline and plan for engaging the community — not only before the proposals are due but also after the deadline. She said CB3 wants to be consulted as the city evaluates various ideas for the site.

Council member Chin is a longtime supporter of the Lowline project. CB3 approved a resolution in support of the Lowline back in 2012. That being said, several members of the land use committee expressed reservations about the project last week. The board’s most recent resolution, however, was solely focused on the city’s process, rather than any concerns about the Lowline’s plan for the former trolley terminal.

CMChin MBPBrewer Letter Re.rfei Trolley Terminal by The Lo-Down

CB3 Panel Calls on City to Rescind Williamsburg Trolley Terminal RFEI (Updated)

Trolley site below Delancey Street. Image from NYC EDC.

Trolley site below Delancey Street. Image from NYC EDC.

Community Board 3’s land use committee last night blasted the city’s handling of a potential development initiative for the old Williamsburg Trolley Terminal site below Delancey Street. The panel approved a resolution, urging the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) to rescind its RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) until the community has an opportunity to help shape the document.

The RFEI was put out by the EDC on Nov. 23, in partnership with the MTA. They’re seeking “expressions of interest from qualified parties for development plans involving the long-term lease and activation of the vacant” trolley terminal, which has been dormant since 1948. The team behind the high profile Lowline underground park proposal has for several years been pushing the MTA to relinquish the space. The transit authority holds a long-term lease for the site.

Lusheena Warner, an EDC assistant vice president, said the city is looking for proposals now to take advantage of the momentum around the big Essex Crossing project. The nearly 2-million square foot commercial and residential complex is being built on nine sites adjacent to the subterranean trolley space.

She heard an earful from community board members. Bill LoSasso called the city’s failure to consult the community board in advance “borderline insulting.” He noted a similar approach when the city released a request for proposals last month for a development site on East 14th Street.

Another board member, Damaris Reyes, pointed out that one group in particular (The Lowline) has been advocating for the space. She said there are “concerns in the community” about the project and talk about “what could be there instead.” Reyes, head of the housing organization GOLES, asked, “Why now?” Given the tight deadline (applications must be in by Dec. 23), she said there’s worry that other proposals could be at a severe disadvantage. “The Lowline is a sexy idea,” Reyes said. “A lot of people think it’s a great idea. But our needs must be considered. This community is experiencing a lot of displacement… We need to consider the impact” of developing the site. “There should be a community process. Some of us feel so strongly about this that you will be hearing from us. This is not a closed matter.”

Warner explained that the EDC could issue a request for proposals after seeing the initial ideas, or it could begin negotiations with an applicant right away. A group of interested parties toured the site last Friday. She said the site would be subject to ULURP, the city’s land use approval process (community boards, the borough president and the City Council would all be consulted). Cathy Dang of the housing organization CAAAV said she’s concerned the trolley terminal RFP would interfere with another project, the Chinatown Working Group’s zoning proposal. “How did the idea come up to release this RFEI?,” she asked.

Board member Enrique Cruz suggested there might be viable alternatives to the Lowline, including the use of the underground space as a downtown bus terminal. “I hope the deck is not stacked against other proposals, ” he said. Board member Lisa Kaplan added, “It is imperative that what happens (on the site) is consistent” with the neighborhood’s character and for the benefit of the low income community” that lives in the area.

In June 2012, Community Board 3 voted 44-0 for a resolution strongly endorsing the Lowline project. It read, in part:

Community Board 3 officially supports the Delancey Underground project and its initiative to build a community‐centered “Lowline” public space, and looks forward to working closely with the Underground Development Foundation in ensuring that this new amenity is developed in partnership with and for the benefit of the Lower East Side community.


Community Board 3 Resolution Support for Low Line Project by The Lo-Down

Last night, Lowline co-founder Dan Barasch was in the audience but was not called on to speak. We talked with him after the meeting and he later provided us with this statement:

The Lowline agrees completely that all members of the community should have adequate time to engage and respond with what should become of the former Williamsburg Trolley Terminal. We do hope we have the opportunity to present our proposal: a free community public space, powered by solar technology, and creating a natural oasis in the center of the neighborhood we love so much.

Barasch highlighted not only the past support of the community board but also that of local elected officials, non-profit organizations and private individuals (see a list of supporters here). “Over the last four years,” he said, “we have worked to gather input from thousands of people across the Lower East Side and surrounding neighborhoods.” He pointed to the Lowline’s Young Designers Program, which has engaged more than 1,000 young people within the community and two exhibitions in abandoned building of the Essex Street Market (one of which is going on now). “We’ve collected a ton of input, feedback, and ideas over these years,” said Barasch. “We look forward to continuing to engage more and more local community members, and we welcome any opportunity to improve community engagement and foster an inclusive design process.”

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Warner, the city official, said the RFEI (as opposed to a request for proposals) is meant to be broad — to solicit the widest variety of ideas. She said the city is committed to taking community concerns into account. While deflecting the panel’s demands to rescind the RFEI, she said, “I understand where you’re coming from and I understand your frustration.”  City officials tell The Lo-Down there was no effort to circumvent the community board. They say CB3 was advised last month that the RFEI was forthcoming, although, we’re told, there was no detailed briefing by the EDC at that time. The notification was apparently made so that the matter could be placed on CB3’s December meeting agenda.

If nothing else, last night’s meeting got out into the open opposition to the Lowline by groups such as GOLES, CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. These organizations are suspicious of the city’s motives, particularly since Alicia Glen, a high ranking administration official, has been a vocal Lowline supporter. It should be noted, however, that the resolution approved by the community board last night was focused solely on the city’s process. There was no mention of the merits or shortcomings of the Lowline project. The panel is asking the EDC to rescind the RFEI and to work with the community board to shape a new document that reflects community interests.

All members of the committee voted for the resolution with the exception of Tim Laughlin, head of the LES Business Improvement District (he abstained). The full board votes on the resolution Dec. 22, the day before the trolley proposals are due.

UPDATED 2:30 p.m. After last night’s meeting, the EDC has agreed to extend the deadline for applications. City officials and community board leaders are now discussing how to incorporate more neighborhood-based feedback into the process.

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