Volume 20 Issue 4 | June 15 - 21, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Time Equities plans to build a new 63-story luxury condo building at 50 West St.

Developer says ‘no’ to affordable housing, so C.B. 1 considers saying ‘right back at you’

By Skye H. McFarlane

A presentation on the proposed 63-story tower at 50 West St. last week left local community board members wrestling with two questions: What sort of community amenities would mitigate the impact of the project’s desired zoning variances? And when does the impact become so significant that no potential amenity could make the deal worthwhile?

The developers at 50 West St. formally presented their request for two separate land use actions on June 6. Now it is up to Community Board 1 to determine whether green design, a public plaza and a laptop program for a local school are reason enough to approve zoning variances that would allow Time Equities to add more than 20 stories to their planned hotel and condominium combo.

So far, the answer seems to be “no,” particularly since the developer refused a request by C.B. 1 members to consider building any affordable apartments in Lower Manhattan.

“We’re moving in right direction, but I don’t think we’re there yet,” said City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who helped negotiate the amenities with the developer. “The community voiced legitimate concerns and requests at the meeting.”

For some community members, the addition of park maintenance, cultural space or a pedestrian bridge could make the development palatable. For others, 50 West St.’s high density, out-of-context design and lack of affordable housing make the project a no-go, no matter what the developers offer the community. The board will hold another meeting this Monday to craft a resolution on the development. According to C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin, the board plans to write a conditional approval or disapproval, rather than a simple “yes” or “no.” The full board will vote on the resolution this Tuesday.

By law, the Department of City Planning must consider the community board’s opinion as a part of the official Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The City Council, however, will have the final say on whether or not the 50 West St. project gets approved.

By right, the developer, Time Equities, can build a 30 to 40-story building on the site, which is next to the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. A 1912 office building will be demolished to make way for the new tower. If the developers’ land-use application is approved, they will be able to add 180,000 square feet of space through the construction of a public plaza along little-known Ward St. and the purchase of air rights from over the Battery Tunnel.

The building will be a slender, translucent glass cylinder designed by noted architect Helmut Jahn. Time Equities director of acquisition and development Phillip Gesue said that the building’s aesthetics made the most sense at its planned height of 63 stories. He pointed out that most of the city’s most significant and beloved buildings, such as the Woolworth Building, were out of context with the height and style of their surroundings when they were first constructed.

“Over time, everything blends in,” Gesue said of the building’s height. “I think this design is very different, very special.”

Despite his admiration for the design, Gesue would not release a rendering of the project for publication.

Several board members agreed that the Jahn design was appealing. Their concerns, they said, rested more with what will be inside the building — namely 300 luxury condominiums filled with new residents. The building will also contain a high-end hotel and ground-floor retail spaces. Community members worried that the new residents and their children would further stress the neighborhood’s already crowded schools, parks and ballfields.

In an attempt to mitigate that impact, the developer offered up a plan to provide laptops for every student in Battery Park City’s I.S. 89. Time Equities would provide laptops, backup equipment and a staff technician for four years. Asked why the developer was offering a temporary amenity to offset a permanent development, Gesue said that the laptop program was designed to see the school through until a new school can be built in the neighborhood, presumably at Site 2B in the neighborhood’s south end.

I.S. 89 principal Ellen Foote and David Feiner, an aide to Councilmember Gerson, both spoke in support of the plan. By giving the school laptops, they said, the developers will allow I.S. 89 to turn its computer room into two regular classrooms — thus reducing class size. Although I.S. 89’s enrollment is capped, P.S. 89, which shares the building, has experienced acute class-size problems in recent years.

Feiner also spoke in favor of 50 West’s plan to seek a “Gold” rating from the U.S. Green Buildings Council. In addition to the rating, Gesue said at the meeting that Time Equities was open to requiring the use of ultra low sulfur diesel fuel and emissions filters in its construction vehicles.

“This is the perfect place to have a green building,” Feiner said. “It’s important to set the standard and hopefully other developers will have to follow the standard and compete.”

One aspect of the building’s green plan, however, was a sticking point for local residents. To encourage the use of public transportation, the building will not have a parking garage. Community members said they feared that the building’s high-income residents and guests would bring cars into the neighborhood anyways, clogging up the streets and raising the price of parking in local garages.

At the Wednesday night meeting, the community debated back and forth with Gesue about other possibilities for community benefits in and around the site. Although the development will include a tree-lined pedestrian plaza along Ward St., Time Equities backed off of its earlier support for a pedestrian bridge connecting the area to Battery Park City.

Gesue said that a bridge landing inside the building would present space and cleanliness issues. A resident of the Greenwich South area himself, Gesue said that he was personally in favor of a pedestrian bridge landing in plaza, but that the developers would have to discuss the feasibility of such a project at a later date.

Gesue said that the developer would consider adding public art or cultural space to the building, so long as the cultural space was occupied by a paying tenant. He did not respond to suggestions that the developer might pay to improve the small parks and streetscapes in the neighborhood.

Menin said that if Time Equities did not choose to take on the park and streetscape upgrades, she hoped that the city would do it instead. If the ULURP application is approved, the city would stand to earn an estimated $18 million from the sale of its air rights. Because the sale of city air rights over a street is an unusual and (to some board members) unsettling proposition, Menin and others insisted that the neighborhood must reap the benefits of that sale from the municipal end.

“One-hundred percent of the proceeds must go to Downtown to support much-needed infrastructure,” Menin said. “That money cannot end up in Red Hook.”

The mention of Brooklyn drew the ire of community residents more than once during the meeting. Because the developer plans to take advantage of the 421-a tax abatement, community members asked whether Time Equities planned to include any affordable housing in the 50 West project. South of 14th St., any development can currently take advantage of the tax break, which was put into place during the 1970s economic crisis.

A new version of the law, however, is expected to pass the state legislature this session. If passed, the new 421-a law would require developers in Lower Manhattan to include at least 20 percent affordable housing in their projects to merit the tax break. The new law would take effect in the new year. The 50 West project plans to break ground in late fall, which would put the project under the old version of the law.

Gesue said last Wednesday that it would be financially impossible to include affordable housing at 50 West as it is currently designed, since the building’s complex architecture and green features have put the construction price tag at over $1,000 per square foot. Asked if Time Equities would consider putting affordable housing off site in one of the company’s other Downtown properties, Gesue said no.

Frustrated with that answer, board member Allan Tannenbaum asked Gesue if he believed that Lower Manhattan should be reserved only for the rich and the super-rich.

“I think that Lower Manhattan should be for the people who can afford to pay the prices that it currently costs to live here,” Gesue said, stressing his strong belief in the free market. He added that if he could no longer afford to live in Lower Manhattan, he would happily move to Brooklyn. He suggested that other neighborhood residents could do the same. “You move to the neighborhood that you can afford to live in.”

The comments — and the thought of another tower going up in the narrow streets of her rapidly developing neighborhood — brought long-time Washington St. resident Esther Regelson close to tears. She urged C.B. 1 to refuse the ULURP application. Gesue argued that the towers, particularly 50 West, would bring commerce and street life to a “gritty” area that currently houses strip clubs and parking garages in addition to its historic old buildings and tenement apartments.

In the end, the board members decided that they needed to go home and carefully weigh the many aspects of the 50 West St. proposal before making a final decision.

“It’s a very good looking building, but would we rather have smaller scale here with stoops and stairs?” asked board member Tom Goodkind. “It’s not just about what the developer is going to give us. We have to ask, ‘Will this improve the neighborhood?’ It might, but I don’t know yet.”

With reporting by Joe Orovic

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