In override vote, Council blocks sale of Downtown building

A new museum to commemorate the African Burial Ground has come in the way of the city’s wish to sell 22 Reade St. to a private developer.

BY ALINE REYNOLDS | The City Council overrode a veto by Mayor Mike Bloomberg Tuesday, blocking his plan to try and sell a Downtown building to private owners.

The Council voted against putting 22 Reade St. on the market, but is backing a possible sale of 49-51 Chambers St. The mayor has said that unless both buildings are sold together, neither of them will be able to house the much-needed community facilities which the Council and Community Board 1 want.

In mid-November, the City Council’s Land Use Committee voted against the Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ proposal to sell all 750,000 square feet of space to private developers. The Council approved the committee’s decision on Nov. 27.

C.B. 1 is in line with the Council position since the current plan fails to include schools and other vital community infrastructure.

The city’s Civic Center Plan would likely result in the transformation of the buildings into luxury housing or hotels. The sale, which would involve moving city agencies currently housed in those buildings elsewhere, would garner an estimated profit of about $100 million for the city. Were the sale to go through, the Department of City Planning along with C.B. 1, the Board of Standards and Appeals and other government agencies would be relocated to 1 Centre St. and other government locales.

Downtown Council Member Margaret Chin and most of her colleagues were against the sale of the three-structured Reade St. building because of its potential to house a museum that would accompany the nearby African Burial Ground.

Prior to the override, Bloomberg slammed the Council’s position, claiming that it is impeding the city from carrying out its mission to improve working conditions for its employees (by moving them to nicer offices) and to consolidate its government operations.

“Additionally, this disapproval would result in the loss of significant tax revenue for the city, newly created jobs and much needed economic development,” the mayor wrote in a Nov. 19 letter to the City Council.

During a City Council hearing on Nov. 13, two weeks prior to the override vote, Downtown residents and elected officials railed against the city’s proposal to sell the government buildings, arguing that the current plan doesn’t take into account critical community facilities and that it disregards a separate plan to construct a historical museum on one of the sites.

Tricia Joyce, who chairs C.B. 1’s Youth and Education Committee, said the sale of both buildings should not go through without conditions attached.

“The absolute last thing we need is any more luxury housing in Lower Manhattan, because we haven’t provided the infrastructure for the already 20,000 apartments we’ve added,” she said. “It’s impossible, and it’ll destroy the very thing they set out to create, which is a vibrant community…

“They owe us 1,200 elementary school seats, ball fields and parks in our neighborhood. We’re going to keep saying this until people get it.”

Joyce and others also objected to the sale of 22 Reade St., in particular, because the city’s R.F.P. neglects to mention how the sale could impact the African Burial Ground, which is situated adjacent to the site at 290 Broadway. The fact that it wasn’t part of the discussion about the proposal is incomprehensible, said Joyce. “It should have been explored before this R.F.P. was even discussed,” she said.

Early last year, Congressman Jerrold Nadler introduced federal legislation proposing the creation of an institution called the African Burial Ground International Museum and Educational Center, which would memorialize the enslaved Africans and African-Americans that are buried in the area.

Ilan Kayatsky, a spokesperson for Nadler, said the congressman’s office has repeatedly asked the city to hold onto 22 Reade St. as a possible site for the museum. “It’s something we’ll continue to explore,” he said.

Upon hearing about the possible museum plan at the Nov. 13 hearing, Council Member Chin decided to only approve the sale of 49-51 Chambers St.

“All throughout our discussion with the mayor’s side, this never came up,” she said, “and at no point during D.C.A.S.’s presentation did they bring it up…it really upset some members on the committee. That was important, and we didn’t know the history behind it.”

Chin had been in negotiations with the city about adding 10,000 square feet in mandated community space to the R.F.P. The council member wasn’t happy with the way the city approached the proposal, she said. “There should have been more consultation up front so that there’s real input, to really look at what is really needed in the long-term for our community.”

“It’s important,” Chin added, “because the buildings are in our district and we have tremendous need in many areas — affordable housing, schools, a senior center.”

But in his letter to City Council, Bloomberg said that, if 22 Reade St. were not sold with 49-51 Chambers St., the city would not be able to generate the necessary revenue to build the agreed upon community space in either that building or the future building at 49-51 Chambers St.

Bloomberg also countered the concept of setting aside 22 Reade St. for the museum. “The desire for a new African Burial Ground National Monument Museum is laudable,” he wrote, “but requires a realistic plan for space, funding and long-term operations. Until then, the preservation of the African Burial Ground Historic District…ensures that this vital part of the city’s history is properly commemorated.”

But after the override, the mayor said in a prepared statement that the plan would have allowed the museum. “While today’s vote will enable other elements of the plan to go forward, 22 Reade Street — which needs more than $20 million in capital repairs just to remain usable in the near term — will continue to deteriorate rather than host a new museum and generate the considerable property tax revenue projected under the Civic Center plan.”

The landmarked building at 49-51 Chambers St., which was erected in 1912, formerly housed the Emigrant Savings Bank. It is a limestone-face Beaux Arts skyscraper that contains 230,000 feet of space. The building was acquired by the city in 1965 and was supposed to be demolished as part of a wider overhaul plan of the Civic Center that was ultimately abandoned.

The edifice at 22 Reade St. comprises three structures that were built between 1859 and 1886 to house local merchants. They were also acquired by the city in 1965 as part of the original Civic Center Plan. The three buildings were combined into one structure measuring 99,000 square feet of space. Beginning in the late 1970s, they were renovated in order to be able to house the Dept. of City Planning and the City Planning Commission.

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2 Responses to In override vote, Council blocks sale of Downtown building

  1. The mayor's comment "But in his letter to City Council, Bloomberg said that, if 22 Reade St. were not sold with 49-51 Chambers St., the city would not be able to generate the necessary revenue to build the agreed upon community space in either that building or the future building at 49-51 Chambers St." is completely ludicrous. The mayor had green-lighted the development of 20,000 apartment units downtown since Sept 11th, and has provided no meaningful infrastructure to the community concurrent with this massive, and planned, development – despite the windfall to the city from the accompanying taxes . One would not see this anywhere else in the world. The school that is in the zone for these buildings is at 120 percent capacity now. There is not ONE school seat for any of the residents of these proposed new buildings. It is a fantasy and it is important to make sure that people spending their life savings to come to this "vibrant community" understand this.

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