(Opinion) Union Square Tech Training Center: Good for Our Community, Good For Underserved Youth

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

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

The following op/ed was written by Meghan Joye, a member of Community Board 3 and chair of CB3’s Economic Development Committee. It concerns the Union Square Tech Training Center, a new facility on 14th Street that was approved by the New York City Council last monthThe 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

As a member and now Chair of CB3’s  Economic Development Committee, I have listened to the struggles of our small businesses for the last seven years. Many of the complaints were about lack of daytime foot traffic. Eating and drinking establishments dominated our retail landscape and many stores were left gated until early evening. Vacancies were high because small retail could not pay the rent. Another factor was the lack of office space in our neighborhood. Most of our residents leave the area to go to work and few come here to work.

One of the ways in which the Economic Development Committee decided to remedy daytime retail problems was to encourage more office space in the neighborhood and to support new local entrepreneurs. We asked the city for a business incubator in our District Needs Statement in the hopes of revitalizing a stagnant retail scene. When the city presented the committee with a tech training proposal on the current PC Richards site, we sat there waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Of course we had concerns and asked for protections. We had more than our fair share of liquor licenses and wanted to be sure new tenants would not be more of the same. We made sure roof use would not add to late noise complaints. For the most part, though, we were being offered a building chock full with amenities in exchange for a relatively modest increase in bulk and height.

The tech training center will provide three floors of free or scholarship-based digital workforce development. There will be five floors of “step-up” office spaces offering flexible lease terms to companies that have outgrown their We-Work spaces but cannot commit to a 20-year office lease. There will be a marketplace on the ground floor leased solely to businesses with 5 or fewer locations with 25% of leases reserved for first time entrepreneurs. In addition, the tech training center will provide free community event space. The remaining floors will be market rate leases to established companies.

We were impressed, but as advocates for our community, we wanted to maximize the community benefits.  We worked with our City Council member, Carlina Rivera, to press the developers for increased community benefits. She did, and she was successful. The developers have committed to additional free community event space, additional incubator space and an annual contribution of $200,000 towards tech scholarships. Companies leasing space in the building will be subject to NYC’s living wage requirements and will participate with the LES Employment Network and HIRE NYC to help local low-income New Yorkers find employment. Council member Rivera has negotiated that 25% of all tech trainees be District 2 residents from underserved communities and set goals for the the number of incubator leases given to M/WBE tenants. In addition, the site itself will create almost 1400 jobs, 615 of which will be permanent.

Not everyone sees the tech training center as an important step in our community’s economic future. Instead of seeing the project as a pathway for our underserved youth to become members of the middle class or as a support system for local entrepreneurs, there are claims that it will turn Union Square into the next “Silicon Alley” that will displace residents and local businesses. It is important to know that not everyone agrees. Tech is already well established in the area with the likes of Dropbox, Hulu, Ebay and Facebook having taken root in Union Square.  Before we paint this industry as “evil tech,” we should remember that Tech largely kept this city afloat economically after the financial collapse of 2008.

Tech isn’t just an industry in itself, it permeates all industries. If we are not educating our at-risk communities in these skills, they will continue to be left behind. If we’re looking to “break the cycle of poverty” and create “pathways to the middle class”, this is one viable solution. The starting salary for a coder in NYC is $60,000 per year.  That’s twice the amount of a full time minimum wage job. This project is also huge step forward in creating a more diverse tech industry in NYC. Technology fosters change and change must come from a collaboration of many voices, not a few. The tech training center is one step forward in achieving that goal.

(Opinion) Union Square Tech Hub is Exactly the Kind of Inclusive Growth the Neighborhood Needs

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

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

The following op/ed was written by William Thomas, an East Village resident and board member of Open New York, which calls itself a pro-housing development organization. This piece was written in response to an op/ed published here Aug. 15 by Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic PreservationThe 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

Two weeks ago, the City Council took a particularly tough vote to replace the shuttered P.C. Richard and Son store on East 14th Street with the Union Square Tech Training Center, a space for non-profits and start-up businesses to train working-class New Yorkers for jobs in the technology sector. It was a tough vote not because anyone on the Council is opposed to helping prepare New Yorkers for better paying jobs, but because lobbyists representing wealthy nearby residents attempted to hijack the proceedings, and almost succeeded.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservationwhich bills itself as a kind of spiritual successor to Jane Jacobs, despite having nearly two million in the bank and an obsession with “enhancing property values in our citysaw the Tech Hub as an opportunity for a back-room deal. Knowing that the Tech Hub was a high priority of city government, GVSHP demanded that the local Council member, Carlina Rivera, and the Council only approve the hub if the mayor also agreed to downzone a wealthy portion of the neighborhood unrelated to the project.

Thankfully, the Council didn’t succumb to this kind of pressure and let the vote proceed on the merits (the project was approved unanimously). This has triggered something of a hysterical reaction from Andrew Berman, executive director of GVSHP and its registered lobbyist (Editor’s note: individuals representing non-profits are required to register with the city if they lobby government officials/agencies). Berman published an op-ed here last Wednesday claiming to counter “misinformation promulgated about the Council vote” with “some cold hard facts” and calling Council Member Rivera a sell-out for not going along with his scheme. It’s understandable he would be upsetit’s a lobbyist’s job to spin for their clients, after all. Nonetheless, as a board member of Open New York, a pro-housing, all-volunteer advocacy group, I took issue with the gross mischaracterization that Berman’s efforts had anything to do with promoting affordable housing, and felt compelled to respond.

So, courtesy of Open New York, I would like to offer a few “cold hard facts” of my own:

Was it irresponsible to risk the Tech Hub for an unrelated downzoning?
Yes. Clearly, GVSHP doesn’t care about risking 1,400 middle-class jobs and would rather leave a storefront empty for years if it helped further their narrow agenda. If Council member Rivera had voted against the Tech Hub, the mayor could have decided to build something else that would provide fewer benefits–after all, the city can already lease or sell the site for any use so long as it complies with current zoning.

The Planning Commission, the local community board, and now the City Council all considered whether the benefits of the Tech Hub would be weakened by the negative consequences of a downzoningconsequences that you will never hear GVSHP admit toand decided the hub should move forward without them.

Negative consequences? I thought these zoning changes were common-sense.
If these changes were so “common-sense”if the case for them was so obvious it didn’t need to be explainedGVSHP wouldn’t have needed to hold the Tech Hub hostage in the first place. They went that route politically because they knew a downzoning would actively harm the surrounding neighborhoods.

The affluent people who would otherwise live in Greenwich Village condos wouldn’t just disappear if the downzoning went through. Instead, they would spread out into Alphabet City and the Lower East Side, driving up rents and causing displacement, while keeping the Village a rarefied preserve for the fortunate few living there now. The only people who benefit from something like this are long-time homeowners who have profited off Greenwich Village’s property boomand it is their interests, not “neighborhood character,” “sustainable affordability,” or even historic preservation, in which the GVSHP is truly invested.

But won’t building the Tech Hub without zoning changes endanger Greenwich Village?
Of course not. The Tech Hub has nothing to do with other construction projects south of Union Square. The GVSHP was pushing this downzoning well before the Tech Hub, and will continue to do so well after it’s finished. It is telling, however, that Berman and the GVSHP seem to view the landmarking process as a tool to prevent development regardless of historical significance.

Weren’t locals asking for the zoning changes left out of the deal?
No. Few have met the final deal with the venom of the GVSHP. The local community board voted in February to approve the Hub without any zoning conditions attached, and many neighborhood residents showed up to support the project (I was one of them). This was a political mugging, and I’m glad it failed.

But won’t the Tech Hub be wildly out of scale with the neighborhood?
It will only be the third tallest building on the block. Chill.

But what about affordable housing?
This is where it gets ugly, and why Berman’s disingenuousness is so frustrating. Berman claims his group’s plan required “the addition or reinforcement of incentives for including or preserving affordable housing as part of any new development,” but then tacked on a bunch of new regulations that would ensure the affordable housing never got built. The proposal on GVSHP’s website gives examples of recent developments that could have included optional affordable housing under their plan, then acknowledges right underneath that under their plan those buildings likely never would be built at all.

It was a smoke screen. And the worst part is New York City has a law on the books passed two years ago to provide mandatory affordable housing in new buildings. If Berman really cared about keeping the Village a mixed-income neighborhood, he would be proposing new zoning changes to take advantage of that law.

Wait – tell me more about mandatory affordable housing.
The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) amendment was added to the city’s zoning resolution in 2016. The idea is that a neighborhood could have its zoning changed to allow for more residential space on each lotmaking more efficient use of NYC’s scarce and expensive buildable landand then developers would be required to use the money they save to include a mix of rent-restricted apartments for people at different income levels on top of the market-rate ones. But the key is the MIH law only applies when the permitted residential floor area goes up. The affordable housing has to actually go somewhere, after all, otherwise it only exists on paper. Berman’s plan was to use an incoherent mix of commercial floor area reductions, height limits, and bonuses that would give developers the option of adding affordable housing but nowhere to put it, knowing this would kill future projects and give him political cover to blame developers–all while his donors’ property values continue to skyrocket.

So should Council member Rivera be lambasted for selling her district short?
NoRivera clearly attempted to deliver a deal that satisfied all parties, but she and her colleagues were negotiating with a man arguing in bad faith. I suspect most East Villagers and Lower East Siders would agree that she made the best call for the neighborhood.

I love the East Village. It’s a one-of-a-kind mix of culture and history and people of different backgrounds. I’m glad it’s held on to so much of its energy and in-your-face personality, and I’m extremely thankful that it was never bulldozed for an expressway.  But the neighborhood is turning from a preservationist’s dream into a renter’s nightmare. The zoning and landmarking tools inspired by 60s-era fights are being abused by people who bought homes when they were cheap and now want to block anyone new from moving hereunless, of course, they pay up. The Village is an in-demand neighborhood, close to the best jobs, the best schools, the best transit, and the best cultural institutions. It is also being strangled by a thicket of historic districts and development restrictions that ensure nobody who isn’t rich can ever move here again. Instead, newcomers and young families are being pushed into the Lower East Side, or Brooklyn, or the Bronx, continuing a cascading cycle of displacement and gentrification that leaves our City worse off for everyone except rich neighborhood property owners and their lobbyists.

We have to stop privileging the opinions of housing-secure millionaires and start asking how we can tear down the legal barriers to equitable and affordable growth. How we can build new housing for everyone alongside the historic buildings we care for? How we can make room for the types of people who make the Village so eclectic and vibrant rather than pushing them out?

If you agree, you should support projects like the Tech Hub and resist the temptation to say no to every new building that gets proposed. And maybe take a minute to call your council member and thank them for not selling out. You can reach Carlina Rivera at 212-677-1077.

(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.

City Council Unanimously Approves Union Square Tech Training Center

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

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

The New York City Council voted 45-0 yesterday to approve plans for the Union Square Tech Training Center, a 21-story complex at 124 East 14th St. The support of local City Council member Carlina Rivera was critical in clearing the way for the controversial tech hub.

The facility, to be built on a city-owned parcel that once housed a P.C. Richard & Son store, will be a partnership between RAL Development Services and the non-profit Civic Hall. The building will include a digital skills training center, flex-office space for startups and market rate office space for established firms.

Many local activists, especially those advocating for low-income communities of color, support the tech hub as a path to valuable skills training and high paying jobs for community youth. Others, including preservation activists, urged Rivera to vote “no” on the proposal if the city failed to add zoning protections to the blocks to the south of the development site.

Carlina Rivera in City Council chambers Aug. 8, 2018. Photo by Emil Cohen/NYC Council.

Carlina Rivera in City Council chambers Aug. 8, 2018. Photo by Emil Cohen/NYC Council.

Not long after yesterday’s vote, Rivera sent a lengthy email message to constituents and to supporters beyond the confines of her Council District 2. In the “Dear Neighbors” letter, she spelled out the results of her negotiations with the mayor’s office and city agencies to protect the surrounding neighborhood from more rampant over-development. These measures include:

  • An agreement to place 7 properties along the Broadway corridor on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s calendar.
  • A commitment from the city to begin “the process of establishing a protective zoning measure” south of 14th Street to regulate commercial development.
  • Stepped up outreach by city officials to educate tenants in rent stabilized buildings about their rights. Residents of District 2 will, according to Rivera, “priority status” with the city’s new Tenant Protection Unit.
  • A commitment from city agencies to help protect Merchants House on East 4th Street from the effects of any development on the neighboring lot.
  • A monthly meeting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to discuss neighborhood preservation issues.

In a statement released yesterday, Rivera explained:

After eight months of intense negotiations with City Hall, I am satisfied that we are achieving the two most important goals our community needed from this rezoning. I am voting yes today for a Tech Hub that will bring true community benefits, tech education, and workforce development services that will finally give women, people of color, and low-income New Yorkers access to an industry that has unfairly kept them out for far too long. And I am of course voting yes with the knowledge that we achieved crucial protections for the neighborhood that I have lived in my entire life and seen change so much over the last 15 years… I believe these protections for the neighborhood are the first in a string of victories that will allow us to develop sensible zoning for livable streets, establish landmarking of precious historical sites, and ensure the small businesses we cherish prosper

Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) was also quick to react even before yesterday’s unanimous Council vote. His organization has led a campaign, with other local groups, to link the tech hub with a rezoning on the blocks to the south of 14th Street. Here’s Berman’s statement:

The City Council’s deal approves the Mayor’s Tech Hub with just a fraction of a fraction of the protections the surrounding neighborhood needs and called for, and which Councilmember Rivera promised (as a candidate) to condition her vote upon. The approval of the Tech Hub will accelerate the transformation of the adjacent Greenwich Village and East Village neighborhoods into an extension of ‘Midtown South’ and ‘Silicon Alley,’ which many developers and real estate interests have already begun to call them.  We are seeing 300 ft. tall office and condo towers going up in this area and 300 room hotels being built, which are completely out of character for these neighborhoods, with many more to come.  It’s a shame that the Mayor is so invested in protecting his real estate donor friends that he would not consider real but reasonable zoning protections for the area that would have prevented this kind of unnecessary development, and encouraged residential development that includes affordable housing.  It’s also a shame that our local Councilmember caved to the Mayor and broke a promise she publicly made to ensure that these real protections were part of any final deal. They’re not, and the deal approved today will do very little to protect this neighborhood.  It will do a lot to accelerate the kind of development which will fundamentally change the character of our neighborhood, and accelerate the exodus of current residents and small businesses.  But of course, as always, the Mayor’s campaign donors got a very good deal out of this.

Rivera pointed out that Community Board 3 supported the zoning changes necessary to build the tech hub and spelled out a number of community benefits it wanted to see represented in the project. The Council member said she advocated for these measures, among others, during her negotiations. They include: the establishment of a scholarship fund, access for the local community to a meeting space 52 times each year and a commitment to set aside 25% of the workforce training slots for qualified District 2 residents.

CB3 Chair Alysha Lewis Coleman said, “Community Board 3 is very excited about the coming Tech Training Center. Our youth need and deserve training for good-paying twenty-first century tech jobs. We are appreciative that the City responded to the CB3 priority to have a business incubator for our emerging entrepreneurs. We are excited for this important project to become a reality for our community.”

Rivera Votes “Yes” on Tech Hub at Committee, Says Negotiations Are Continuing

City Council member Carlina Rivera with Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

City Council member Carlina Rivera with Council Speaker Corey Johnson; July 18, 2018. Photo by Emil Cohen/New York City Council.

The proposed Union Square Tech Training Center took a big step forward Thursday, as the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning & Franchises gave its approval. Once again, newly elected District 2 Council member Carlina Rivera was in the hot seat, under pressure from different factions in the communities she serves. The full Council is set to vote on the measure next Wednesday, Aug. 8.

The center at 124 East 14th St. would rise 21-stories on a city-owned parcel that once housed a P.C. Richard & Son store. The partners — including RAL Development Services and the 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 many people are convinced the center will offer desperately needed technical skills training for low-income local residents, others are fearful the new complex would only set off a new wave of over-building in the neighborhood. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) has insisted on zoning protections in the surrounding area. While campaigning for office, Rivera promised to demand zoning provisions to preserve neighborhood character.

Since the Council generally follows the lead of the local Council member, all eyes were on Rivera Thursday. Just a couple of weeks ago, she threatened to vote no, saying at a Council hearing that local concerns were not being taken seriously by the administration. But this week that outlook changed. Rivera announced her support yesterday, but not before reading a carefully worded statement.  Here’s a part of what she had to say:

As I vote yes at this subcommittee hearing, I want to make it clear that I am doing this so that I can continue negotiations with the mayor’s office towards the possibility of reaching a deal that will satisfy all impacted communities before next week’s stated meeting. The mayor’s office came to the table with a set of proposals, and I appreciate their commitment to work with us. Over the next few days, I look forward to negotiations and getting to the point where I and stakeholders are satisfied. The fight to keep history is important and our vision for the neighborhood includes character and vibrancy for all generations to come.

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

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

In statements released after the vote, de Blasio administration officials singled out Rivera for praise. Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said,  “I thank (Council) Speaker (Corey) Johnson, Council Member Rivera and the entire City Council for their partnership.” James Patchett, president and ceo of the Economic Development Corp., said, “We thank Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Rivera for being such steadfast advocates for New Yorkers, and helping to deliver a project that will truly change lives.” 

GVSHP’s Andrew Berman, however, wasted no time in blasting the Council in general and Rivera in particular:

It is deeply disappointing that the Council would approve this rezoning without anything even remotely resembling the protections for the surrounding neighborhood that had been under discussion. This will turn Greenwich Village and the East Village into extensions of Silicon Alley and Midtown South, with more out-of-scale and out-of-character tech office buildings and condo high-rises going up in the area. Councilmember Rivera publicly pledged during her campaign that she would not vote for the Tech Hub without the comprehensive neighborhood protections which have been under discussion for more than two years. This falls very far short of that pledge she made to her constituents.

In February, Community Board 3 endorsed the tech hub and called for zoning protections in the area, but declined to issue an ultimatum to the city. A number of board members were uncomfortable with the idea of holding good paying jobs for disadvantaged youth hostage over what they saw as the separate issue of rezoning on 3rd and 4th Avenues. Here’s what Meghan Joye, chair of CB3’s Economic Development Committee, said yesterday:

I want to thank Carlina for her vote today that supports the CB 3 priority for a business incubator in our community and our support of training for our vulnerable youth for skilled  tech jobs. The tech training center will help our youth be prepared for the good paying jobs they deserve and provide much needed community benefits. I know that Carlina will continue to work with the community board and community for needed neighborhood protections.

There was also support for Rivera beyond the borders of District 2. On the Lower East Side, NYCHA tenant leader Aixa Torres (Smith Houses) publicly thanked her.

It would be extraordinary (and unfortunate for Rivera) if the de Blasio administration did not come forward sometime before next week’s vote with something to address over-development concerns in the area. As Crain’s reported, “The city has balked at the idea of reducing the potential for office space, though Thursday’s vote indicates that some sort of agreement with Rivera, who campaigned on the issue under the watchful eye of the preservation group, is likely.”

A spokesperson for Council member Rivera declined to comment regarding any deal that might be in the works.

(Opinion) NYCHA Tenant Leader Urges Approval of Union Square Tech Training Center

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

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

The New York City Council’s Zoning & Franchises Subcommittee has scheduled a vote today on the Union Square Tech Training Center. The 21-story proposed complex on a parcel that once housed a P.C. Richard & Son store is controversial. While many people in the community believe it would bring new opportunities to low-income youth, others are adamantly opposed if the city doesn’t agree to zoning protections in the immediate area.

The following opinion piece was written by Aixa Torrres, president of the tenant association at the Alfred E. Smith Houses. The Lo-Down accepts unsolicited op/ed submissions relevant to the Lower East Side community. They 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.

Over the years, I and my longtime neighbors at the Alfred E. Smith Houses on the Lower East Side have witnessed the transformation of our neighborhood. We watched 1 Police Plaza be built, lived through the dark days after 9/11, survived Hurricane Sandy, and saw the Lower East Side change from a working-class neighborhood into a tourist destination.

Right now, we are witnessing another transformation: the change of the local economy. Tech companies are making up more and more of the economy. We no longer want to witness history—we want to be a part of it, and find jobs in this rapidly-growing industry.

However, the reality is that too many Alfred E. Smith residents simply don’t have access to the training or skills needed to land a job in the tech sector. The nearby Union Square Tech Training Center will help us close this gap by offering affordable training to our residents and providing access to good-paying jobs in the innovation space. These opportunities should be available to all New Yorkers to help level the economic playing field.

I know firsthand how impactful high-level tech training can be. A few years ago, my middle-aged son, also a resident of the Alfred E. Smith Houses, found himself unemployed. In order to find a good-paying job, he knew he needed to learn marketable technical skills. Fortunately, he heard about a Bronx-based program called Per Scholas, which offers free IT training courses. These classes changed the trajectory of my son’s life. Instead of sitting home trying to search for a job, he is thriving in a quality IT job.

But from the Alfred E. Smith Houses, the road to Per Scholas was long—literally. Often, my son’s commute from the Lower East Side would take close to two hours.

This grueling trek makes it impossible for many Alfred E. Smith residents, many of whom have part-time jobs and families for which they need to provide. But the need for tech training in our community has never been stronger. Most residents at Alfred E. Smith Houses don’t have personal computers. Instead, we rely on two outdated desktops in our tenant association offices, and only a few computers at the public library. Our local schools only have capacity for one or two computer classrooms, stretching their resources across hundreds of students.

We need new, modern resources to give our community the opportunity to join the tech sector.

The Union Square Tech Training Center will bring accessible IT courses less than twenty minutes from our community. It will offer IT classes from great organizations like Per Scholas, Fedcap, and AccessCode, and connect training programs with tech companies that are growing and hiring within the building.

These kinds of opportunities haven’t been available to communities like ours. But with the Union Square Tech Training Center, jobs that once felt out of reach could become realities for countless Alfred E. Smith residents. I have seen firsthand how workforce development can change a life. It’s time more New Yorkers have that opportunity. I look forward to the day when this much-needed institution opens its doors and empowers more New Yorkers to reach their full potential.

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.

 

Union Square Tech Training Center Approved By City Planning Commission

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

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

The Union Square Tech Training Center is one step closer to becoming reality.

The City Planning Commission yesterday approved the proposal for a 21-story commercial tower at 124 East 14th St., the site of a former P.C. Richard & Son store. The project, which requires zoning changes is winding its way through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

The partners — including RAL Development Services and Civic Hall (a tech training and collaboration non-profit) — plan to create a digital skills training center, flex-office space for startups, market rate office space for established firms and a food hall within the building. There would also be a large meeting facility.

The city’s Economic Development Corp. is overseeing the project. An EDC Spokesperson, Ryan Birchmeier said, “The Tech Training Center in Union Square will create a new model for accessing New York City’s tech sector – connecting New Yorkers to modern skills training and job opportunities with growing companies, all under one roof. We are thrilled to see the project continue to gain momentum throughout the public review process and appreciate the City Planning Commission’s feedback on ways to make it even stronger.”

Some community members have worries about the large complex. They’ve asked for zoning protections in the blocks to the south of the development site to protect against further over-development. Community Board 3 voted in favor of the project, with conditions. The focus now shifts to the City Council, which will vote on the ULURP. Local City Council member Carlina Rivera will have a lot to say about the final plan. A newsletter to constituents in May from Rivera’s office stated:

As Carlina continues to negotiate with the de Blasio administration ahead of the Council vote on the ULURP, she is committed to a Tech Hub facility that truly represents the education and economic development needs of her constituents while also obtaining protections for the adjoining neighborhoods that preserve affordability and character.

The EDC yesterday put out a promotional video for the tech training center, which features several Lower East Side leaders, including the tenant presidents of two LES public housing complexes.

Community Board 3 Approves Union Square Tech Center Proposal, Calls For Zoning Protections

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

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

Community Board 3 last night approved a land use application to create a Union Square Tech Training Center at 124 East 14th St.

As we reported Feb. 9, the proposal for a 21-story commercial tower won the support of CB3’s land use and economic development committees. Local preservationists and other community activists were pushing for conditional approval of the tech hub, linking the land use application to a rezoning of the blocks to the south of the development site.

The board stopped short of an ultimatum, but did add the following language in the resolution approved yesterday:

Consistent with previous board support for rezoning the Third and Fourth Avenue corridor, including the December 2017 board resolution, CB3 urges the city to commence the process of rezoning this area as well as incentivize affordable housing and exclude certain use groups such as hotels and big box stores.

The new tech industry hub would be built on a city-owned site that formerly housed a P.C. Richard & Son store. The partners — including RAL Development Services and Civic Hall (a tech training and collaboration non-profit) — plan to create a digital skills training center, flex-office space for startups, market rate office space for established firms and a food hall within the building. There would also be a large meeting facility.

The project is a major priority for the de Blasio administration. In a statement released this morning, Anthony Hogrebe of the city’s Economic Development Corp., said:

The tech training center will establish a physical access point to the city’s tech industry – creating a place where New Yorkers can gain digital skills, access a good-paying job, or start and grow a company. We’re thrilled to receive the support of Community Board 3, and of so many residents in lower Manhattan who have been calling for these resources for years. We thank the members of the community board for their thoughtful recommendations and look forward to working with them throughout – and beyond – the public approval process to make this project a reality.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) has been leading a coalition battling for zoning protections. Andrew Berman, GVSHP’s executive director, said last night he’s satisfied with the outcome at CB3:

This (resolution) sends an important message to Mayor de Blasio and developers that we do not want the East Village and Greenwich Village transformed into Silicon Alley or Midtown South. A Tech Hub on 14th Street which provides training and services to New Yorkers and small start-ups can be a valuable addition to our city; but it must be accompanied by zoning protections for the surrounding residential neighborhood which ensures that tech and other development doesn’t push out longtime residents and businesses, or fundamentally change the character of these neighborhoods. What we are proposing is a win-win – the Tech Hub proceeds on 14th Street, and the Mayor lives up to his rhetoric about preserving and promoting affordable housing by advancing this rezoning for the surrounding area that would prevent out of scale development and encourage affordable housing development and preservation. So far he has adamantly refused, only supporting the zoning changes for the Tech Hub, which is to be developed by his campaign donors. We hope he will now listen.
At last night’s meeting, people for the tech hub and those concerned about over-development showed up to speak out about the controversial issue. CB3’s vote was the first step in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The application now goes to the Manhattan Borough President, followed by the City Planning Commission. Finally, there will be a decisive vote by the New York City Council.

Newly elected City Councilmember Carlina Rivera appeared at last night’s meeting. In brief remarks before the vote, Rivera said, “In my negotiations for the rezoning and the tech hub, I wish they were going better than they were.” [City Planning has expressed little enthusiasm for a rezoning.]  “As a community,” added Rivera, “we have a history of resisting and we have a history of pushing forward what we know is best.”

“I honestly think we could use both (the tech center and zoning protections),” said Rivera. “The tech center has the potential to be something great, but we also know that this kind of development can incentivize large-scale buildings and things that maybe we don’t necessarily think are priorities. Whatever you choose. I can use both resolutions. I will use the language to push through what I know are our priorities.”

Two CB3 Panels Endorse Tech Hub, Reject Conditional Zoning Provision

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

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

Two committees of Community Board 3 Wednesday night voted in favor of creating a Union Square Tech Training Center at 124 East 14th St. Members of the land use and economic development committees rejected calls to require zoning protections in the area as a condition of approval. The focus now shifts to the full board meeting on Feb. 27, where a final land use vote will take place.

The new tech industry hub would be built on a city-owned site that formerly housed a P.C. Richard & Son store. The project, which requires several zoning changes, recently entered the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). CB3, the Manhattan borough president and the City Planning Commission will all weigh in before a decisive City Council vote later this year.

The partners — including RAL Development Services and Civic Hall (a tech training and collaboration non-profit) — outlined their plan before a standing room only crowd at Henry Street Settlement. The 240,000 square foot complex would include a digital skills training center, a large meeting space, flex-office space for startups, market rate office space for established firms and a food hall.

Project supporters believe the center would bring desperately needed (free and low-cost) career training services to low-income youth on the Lower East Side. Critics, however, are worried that the glossy commercial complex would be a catalyst for rampant over-development in the blocks to the south of 14th Street. While Community Board 3 has already endorsed a protective zoning proposal for the Third and Fourth Avenue corridors, preservation activists want CB3 to go a step further — withholding support for the tech center unless the city agrees to a rezoning.

There was a lengthy presentation from the development team, and testimony from many members of the public. Civic Hall supporters spoke passionately about the organization’s role in supporting non-profit innovation and in bridging the digital divide. There was also a major show of force from East Village community residents and advocacy groups, who spoke out against hyper-development. They decried projects such as the Moxy Hotel on East 11th Street and the luxury condo tower on East 12th Street where Bowlmor Lanes was formerly located.

Part of a flyer prepared by GVSHP.

Part of a flyer prepared by GVSHP.

Community board members are divided on the issue, with some balking at the tactic of “holding the tech center hostage,” while others pushing the board to use the only leverage its got to protect the fading residential character of the East Village. That divide was very much on display Wednesday night. In a straw poll, the committees were evenly split, with 10 members supporting direct linkage between tech hub approval and the rezoning, and 11 against a conditional approval (CB3’s board chair broke a tie).

Board members Enrique Cruz, Damaris Reyes and Lisa Kaplan have been among the most outspoken advocates of using the tech hub as leverage. A proposed rezoning pushed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and other groups would reduce the allowable size of commercial projects and, according to supporters, create incentives for building affordable housing.

During the meeting, Reyes said she’s all for a community-based training center that would help low-income youth access high-paying tech industry jobs. But a $75,000/year salary, said Reyes, “won’t get you an apartment on the Lower East Side that’s not affordable housing.” The longtime executive director of GOLES, the affordable housing group, argued, “This board should take a stand. We should make sure neighborhood kids have a place to live.”

Another committee member, Tim Laughlin, said he understood the desire for zoning protections, but argued that it would be wrong to use the tech hub as leverage. Laughlin, president of the Lower East Side Partnership, said the community board had repeatedly asked the city for a workforce training center. “The city delivered what we asked. I think we have a good project here.”

Photo: Property Shark.

Photo: Property Shark.

The zoning changes proposed by city planners would create a single C6-4 zoning lot on the former P.C. Richard site. Without the land use alterations, the building could only rise to 14 stories (as opposed to 21). MyPhuong Chung, chairperson of the land use committee, noted that the city long ago acquired the right to sell the property; the only purpose of the ULURP is to approve a larger building than current zoning allows. Since this is the case, Chung said, she fears a conditional approval of the ULURP would backfire. “We’re opening the door to a project that is devoid of any benefits to the community,” said Chung. “It would be basically a market rate office building (or potentially luxury housing).”

Chung also referenced comments made earlier this week by District 2’s new City Council representative, Carlina Rivera. During last year’s campaign, Rivera told GVSHP,  “I would use my leverage as Councilwoman to condition my support for the Tech Hub upon the city approving zoning protection for the adjacent residential area.” But in a reporter roundtable on Monday, Rivera expressed confidence that the de Blasio administration will respond to community concerns, and that both the tech hub and a rezoning will ultimately move forward. Chung asserted, We need to not work against our Council person, who’s already gone on record as recently as Monday, saying that she supports both projects, both incentivizing affordable housing in our neighborhood and the tech hub.”

In ULURP, any community board member present (not just committee members) is allowed to vote.  On Wednesday night, 17 voted in favor of a resolution that set no firm conditions regarding the Third/Fourth Avenue rezoning proposal, and 6 voted against. The resolution did include a number of prerequisites for approval, including the following provision:

(The) City works with (the) community, CB3, and (the) City Council to incentivize affordable housing in the Third, Fourth Avenues  area and (agrees to) exclude some commercial use groups such as hotels and big box stores.

Andrew Berman, executive director of GVSHP, has raised questions about Wednesday evening’s straw poll (10 in favor of tech hub approval on the condition of a rezoning, 11 against a conditional approval). He released a statement following the meeting:

By the narrowest of votes in which several of our supporters who should have been allowed to vote were not allowed to do so, a strong resolution incorporating all of our concerns was defeated for a weaker one incorporating some but not all of our concerns. We will continue to push for stronger language at the full board meeting that reflects all the community’s concerns about this project and its potential impacts upon the surrounding neighborhood, and most importantly keep working to ensure that at the end of the day this neighborhood gets the protections it deserves and needs.

Berman makes the case that all community members should have been permitted to vote in the informal straw poll that determined whether CB3 would insist on a rezoning. Several board members in the audience did not participate. It’s an issue certain to come up at the full board meeting later this month (board leadership will likely argue that informal polls are not subject to ULURP rules).

The broader debate at that meeting is sure to be contentious. Like the committees voting this week, the full board will probably be divided on the issue of linking approval of the tech hub with a firm commitment from the city to start a rezoning. Local activists, as well as the developers  will be furiously lobbying their allies on CB3 between now and Feb. 27, when the final ULURP vote takes place.

(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.

 

Union Square Tech Center Faces Key Vote Before CB3 Tonight

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

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

There’s a key vote tonight at Community Board 3 concerning the city’s proposed Union Square Tech Training Center. The board’s land use and economic development committees meet to weigh a land use application necessary to build the 21-story tower on the current site of a P.C. Richard & Son store at 120 East 14th St.

The city says the project would create more than 600 good jobs and invaluable training programs for local youth. For several years, CB3 has been pushing to create a workforce center for low-income residents seeking career opportunities. But the proposal in its current form has faced strong opposition from local community activists. They fear it would unleash more out-of-scale commercial development in the blocks to the south of 14th Street.

The two perspectives were articulated in recent opinion pieces on The Lo-Down from Educational Alliance President & CEO Alan van Capelle and by Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP).

RAL Development Services hopes to build the 240,000 square foot project on a city-owned parcel near Irving Place. The non-profit group, Civic Hall, would operate six floors of the complex, establishing co-working spaces and meeting facilities. A number of other organizations would offer digital training courses. Five floors would be reserved for small tech firms in need of short-term leases, while the remaining seven floors would be rented as market rate office space.

Three years ago, GVSHP proposed a “contextual” rezoning of the University Place and Broadway corridors, which it believes would, “protect the scale of the area, reinforce its residential character, and encourage the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments.” The city has expressed little enthusiasm for the idea. In December, CB3 considered a resolution that would have endorsed the tech hub only if the city agreed to a rezoning. While a version of the resolution in support of rezoning was approved, the board stripped out language linking the two initiatives.  Some board members said they felt it was wrong to, as they put it, essentially hold the tech hub hostage over the zoning issue.

Now the project has entered the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The community board has an advisory role before the borough president, City Planning Commission and City Council weigh in. This evening, local activists will once again be pressing the board to, as GVSHP puts it, to  insist that (zoning) protections be provided as a condition for (the mayor’s) Tech Hub” plan.

While the community board has an advisory role to play, only the City Council has real leverage in these types of land use issues. Since the Council must approve the ULURP, newly elected Councilmember Carlina Rivera will have a lot to say about the fate of the tech hub. [The Council typically defers in land use use votes to the local representative.]

During last year’s City Council campaign, Rivera said she would only support the tech hub if the city agrees to a broader rezoning in the area. We asked Rivera about her current thinking on the issue during a reporter roundtable held earlier this week.

She expressed confidence that both community priorities — establishing a workforce center and enacting zoning protections — can be achieved through negotiations with the de Blasio administration.

First off, said Rivera, she wants to make sure there are very specific guarantees that the center will serve local low-income residents. “I feel like a lot of people in our communities,” said the District 2 Councilmember, “do not have access to these (tech) jobs. They need resources. They needs skills training. I want to make sure we do it the right way. A person that I see walking down Avenue D is going to be taking advantage of the opportunities in that building.”

As part of the land use process, Rivera said she considers it a priority to build in incentives for affordable housing construction in the area. “I’m trying to work with stakeholders, and of course the mayor’s office,” said Rivera, “to ensure that we have two parallel projects running, and make sure that it works out for everyone.”

Asked specifically whether she’s willing to withhold support for the tech hub unless the city endorses a rezoning, Rivera said, “I don’t think it’s going to get to that. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with different people… I don’t think it’s going to be necessary to play that card. I think the city is looking at real community concerns. There are hundreds of people who have been showing up at these meetings in the past few months with concerns about hyper-development. My responsibility is to represent all of these concerns, and I think it’s coming from all different parts of the district. They can’t ignore that many people.”

Tonight’s meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. and takes place at Henry Street Settlement, 301 Henry St. If you would like to read the ULURP application, it’s available here.

(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.

(Opinion) Union Square Tech Training Center Would Give Our Kids a Chance at Jobs of the Future

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

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

The following opinion piece was written by Alan van Capelle, president  & CEO of the Educational Alliance.  It concerns the Union Square Tech Training Center, which is the subject of an important land use hearing by Community Board 3 a week from Wednesday. The project was officially certified into the city’s Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process today. We expect to publish other opinions about the controversial project in the next few days. 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

For most young New Yorkers, the prospect of earning $75,000 for an entry-level job might seem like a dream – but it could soon become a reality for many more.

$75,000 is the starting salary for a web developer in New York City. Every year, thousands of young tech employees accept these jobs, putting them on a path to economic stability and successful careers. In the past eight years alone, job growth in the New York City tech sector has gone up by more than 25% – and it’s on pace to exceed that in the years to come.

Unfortunately, too many young adults in our city lack the specific skills, like coding and cloud computing, to participate in this growing sector. And this lack of opportunity is especially true for low-income students of color. In Community District 3, where Educational Alliance is headquartered, over 47% of people aged 18 and under are living below the poverty line. For these youths, having access to tech careers would be life-changing.

It’s no secret that the tech industry struggles with diversity, but New York City can and should create a new model for training young people for high-quality tech careers.

Mayor de Blasio’s plan for an inclusive tech training center in Union Square will do just that. The center will give young people of all backgrounds a physical access point to high-paying jobs and digital skills, among growing tech companies and startups who are looking to recruit talent within the same building. As the Union Square project enters into the city’s public approval process, it’s time for our community to rally behind it.

At Educational Alliance, we know that having a physical space like this is critical. For more than 128 years, we have provided a range of high-impact services in Lower Manhattan, with an emphasis on connecting young people to education opportunities that can change the course of their lives. And we’ve learned that our youth are always ready to capitalize on the opportunities they’re afforded. In a district with graduation rates as low as 37 percent, every student in our College Prep program goes on to graduate, go to college, and receive financial aid.

The Union Square training center would give our students another great opportunity by creating a pipeline from their neighborhoods to high-quality jobs, ensuring that tech employees more accurately reflect the makeup of our diverse city.

Businesses have long struggled to align their workforces with the diversity of the cities where they’re headquartered. Although New York City has the most diverse tech industry in the country, the majority are still white (62 percent) and male (60 percent). It’s time for us to take action, and to do that we need to pair industry interventions with community-driven solutions.

That’s why we’re so optimistic about the Union Square project – which will be anchored by Civic Hall, along with world-class tech training organizations like Per Scholas, FEDCAP, the Computer Science Foundation of New York, AccessCode, MOUSE.org, and General Assembly. All of these organizations have years of experience working with underserved populations, and the training center will provide scholarships so that digital skills and job connections are truly accessible to everyone.

Since the project was announced last year, Civic Hall and the development team have been working with local organizations like ours on ways to best serve this diverse community. They have agreed to host a minimum of 32 community events each year at reduced costs and will create a civic innovation center where community groups can meet with tech professionals to develop new solutions in the public interest.

If we want to help our young people access quality jobs, we can’t afford to let this opportunity go by. Let’s embrace the future and make sure that everyone gets to be a part of it.

Alan van Capelle is president and CEO of the Educational Alliance, a community organization that has served the Lower East Side and Lower Manhattan since 1889.