By Andrew Berman
Mayor de Blasio has filed an application for a rezoning to allow a large new “Tech Hub” to be built on the south side of 14th Street just east of Fourth Avenue, on the longtime 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 New York’s “Silicon Alley.”
As the tech industry has long been centered in the Union Square/Flatiron neighborhood north of 14th Street, one might think this proposal would hardly elicit notice. But in fact, it’s at the center of a firestorm about the rapidly changing nature of the adjacent Greenwich Village and East Village neighborhoods. The blocks between Union Square and Astor Place, along University Place and the blocks directly to the east, are currently facing unprecedented development pressure, with oversized office buildings, hotels and high-rise condos going up, and have been dubbed the new “Silicon Alley” and even an extension of “Midtown South.” And the Tech Hub is likely to help turn the current development wave into a tsunami.
The examples of the current pressure and transformation 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 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, 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.
On top of this, 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 believe it or not, this impending calamity could actually turn into a win-win that advances the Tech Hub and preserves the character of the adjacent residential neighborhoods. But only if the Mayor is willing to compromise (so far he is not) or if the newly elected Councilmember for the area, Carlina Rivera, fulfills a campaign pledge to condition her support for the 14th Street Tech Hub (necessary because it requires City Council approval, and the Council defers to local Councilmembers on land use issues) on the Mayor also supporting protections for the surrounding neighborhood for which GVSHP has fought.
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. Our proposed zoning changes 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.
What makes us think we can wring approval of these neighborhood protections out of the Tech Hub plan? Making such a connection is not a novel or untested approach. Just to the west, GVSHP worked with Councilmember (now Speaker) Johnson in 2016 to secure protections for the surrounding neighborhood when the City wanted to rezone a site on Houston Street. Rivera’s predecessor, Rosie Mendez, pledged to do as much in this case, but she was term-limited out of her seat, and as soon as she announced her support for conditioning the Tech Hub approval on protections for the surrounding neighborhood, the City sat on the application, hoping for better luck with her successor. And rezonings such as the one the Mayor is proposing for the Tech Hub are supposed to consider the impacts they will have on the surrounding area, and offer “mitigations” to prevent negative effects. This certainly fits that bill.
The Tech Hub plan is going through the public review and approval process now, with a final decision coming at the City Council mid-year. So far the Mayor has not budged. If Councilmember Rivera stands tall, she will either force the Mayor to allow the neighborhood zoning protections to advance as part of the deal, or she will protect the neighborhood by turning the tech hub down and telling the Mayor to come back with his plan when he is willing to protect the surrounding neighborhood.
If the Tech Hub plan goes through without any protections for the surrounding neighborhood, we’ll see an acceleration of the already dramatic pace of University Place and the blocks to the east turn into something we have never seen there before —a sea of high-rises, many of them commercial office buildings and hotels, as this area becomes an extension of Midtown and its ever-growing “Silicon Alley.”
To find out more, go to www.gvshp.org/savemyneighborhood. You can help by sending letters about protecting the neighborhood to Mayor deBlasio at www.gvshp.org/mayor, to Borough President Gale Brewer at www.gvshp.org/brewer, and to Councilmember Carlina Rivera at www.gvshp.org/carlina.