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.
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.”
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.