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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Local residents are on edge about the city’s disposition of three of its Downtown buildings, worrying that the neighborhood might not get enough bang for its buck in terms of public benefits.
New public school seats and affordable apartments are musts for the buildings once they are acquired by private developers, members of Community Board 1’s Planning and Community Infrastructure Committee told city official Theresa Ward at its May meeting.
Ward, chief asset management officer for the city Department of Citywide Administrative Services, appeared before the committee to present the Civic Center Plan, a three-year initiative that involves consolidating close to 20 city agencies into unused, newly furnished office space in the Municipal Building (at 1 Centre St.) and elsewhere.
The board’s demand for public amenities corresponds specifically with the city’s forthcoming sale of 22 Reade St. and 49-51 Chambers St., which currently house C.B. 1 offices and the Department of City Planning among other government agencies. The disposition of the third site at 346 Broadway was already approved in the late 1990s and will be sold in conjunction with the other two buildings, according to Ward.
The plan promises to save the city some $100 million over the next 20 years. “We learned the city has more office space than it needs, and much of it is underutilized and in very poor condition,” she explained.
But to the committee’s dismay, Ward conveyed that opening a school at one of the three locations isn’t in the cards.
The city Department of Education’s School Construction Authority evaluated the three sites and “really felt all three buildings were not suitable for schools,” she said.
In a written quote, the D.O.E. countered locals’ call for the siting of new schools, insisting that it is “on track to meet the growing demand for school seats in Lower Manhattan” by opening the 700-seat Peck Slip School.
While C.B. 1 has a 60-day window to formally comment on the city’s plan for the buildings, board members are already raising questions and concerns. Catherine McVay Hughes, the board’s vice chair, emphasized the need for a new school, despite the city’s claims.
“If this becomes a residential building, where the families are going to be living, it’s going to increase the overcrowding in our schools already,” said Hughes. “If you are going to build more residential…the infrastructure has to be in place.”
Adam Malitz, a lifelong resident of Independence Plaza North (I.P.N.), one of Downtown’s original affordable housing developments, asserted that Downtown has a “serious shortage” of affordable housing units.
“I don’t mean rent-stabilized where it starts at $4,000 a month,” he said. “I mean, we’re looking at section eight tenants [and] at people who can move in at an actual middle-class rate.”
Committee chair Jeff Galloway agreed, arguing that Downtown is becoming less and less diverse. “We’re not saying we don’t like wealthy people moving in and doing whatever they want to do,” he said, “but we don’t want this to be just like a sliver of the Upper East Side.”
Malitz went on to ask why the city didn’t require prospective developers to include public infrastructure in their proposals, which are due by July. Ward replied saying that the city has to generate “significant” revenue in order to finance the relocation of the panoply of agencies and therefore didn’t want to make the Request for Proposals (R.F.P.) restrictive.
“Developers that respond to city R.F.P. are very well aware they need to propose something the community would respect,” Ward added.
However, Brian Cook, director of land use for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, stressed the importance of spelling out the community’s needs in the R.F.P. Stringer wrote letters to city officials in January underscoring the need for public facilities in the buildings.
“I haven’t seen many developers come and propose a public school unless it’s required or physically asked for by the city,” said Cook. “If it’s not in the R.F.P., I don’t think it’s likely.”
For years, C.B. 1 chair Julie Menin has been pushing for a revision to the city charter to oblige developers to incorporate public infrastructure in their buildings proposals.
“We can’t continue to build thousands of new residential units Downtown without building the proper amount of school seats and affordable housing,” she said. “If there was legislation that mandated these types of standards, we wouldn’t be in this problem.”
Local stakeholders are scheduled to meet with Stringer on Thurs., May 17 to discuss the community’s needs with respect to the disposition of the city-owned properties.