Will Tech Hub Save the East Village or Turn it Into Silicon Alley? [OP-ED]
The following op-ed was written by Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
On February 28, Community Board 3 voted to include in their approval of a proposed Tech Hub on 14th Street the condition that (among many other things) the City move ahead with longstanding requests for rezoning of 3rd and 4th Avenues, directly adjacent to the site. This happened only after dozens of public meetings and hearings in which hundreds of residents turned out to voice their concern that a Tech Hub without such protections will accelerate a growing flood of oversized and out-of-character development in the area.
Community Board 3 listened. It remains to be seen if the Mayor will.
The Mayor has filed an application for a rezoning needed to allow a large 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 linchpin of a new “Silicon Alley” spreading down from Union Square to Astor Place.
Whatever the virtues of the proposed center in terms of jobs and job training, there are some serious downsides to the project, which will also include a significant amount of market-rate commercial space that will just generate revenue for the developer (a campaign contributor to the Mayor). 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 originally zoned 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. Which is why the real estate and tech industries have begun to, for the first time, refer to this area as “Silicon Alley” and “Midtown South,” previously unheard for any site south of 14th Street.
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 East 11th Street / 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 fundraiser 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 Street, 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 Street 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 affordable housing incentives which apply there 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.
These plans have been endorsed by local elected officials, both affected community boards, local merchants groups, neighborhood and citywide affordable housing groups, area block associations, and an overwhelming majority of affected residents. But thus far the Mayor has adamantly opposed such plans.
This coalition of groups is therefore saying that any approval of the Tech Hub must be 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 benefit his campaign fundraisers and political allies, and the surrounding neighborhood may suffer.
What makes us think the outcome will be any different?
The Mayor’s Tech Hub rezoning requires the approval of the City Council. During her campaign for City Council, Carlina Rivera pledged to condition her support for the Tech Hub on the Mayor finally agreeing to let these zoning protections for the surrounding neighborhood move ahead (her predecessor, City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, did the same, so the Mayor sidelined the Tech Hub proposal waiting for her term to expire). Making such a connection is not a novel or untested approach; Rivera’s colleague to the west, Councilmember (now Speaker) Johnson, did this in 2013 to ensure that protections for the surrounding neighborhood were included when the City wanted to rezone a site on Houston Street, among myriad other examples.
If Councilmember Rivera stands firm and makes clear to the Mayor that protecting the surrounding neighborhood must accompany approvals for the Tech Hub, our neighborhoods and the entire city will have reason to celebrate. If not, expect to see this area between Union Square and Astor Place quickly absorbed into the ever-expanding “Silicon Alley” and “Midtown South” just to its north.