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.
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.
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.
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: email@example.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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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: email@example.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.