Volume 20 Issue 6 | June 22 - 28, 2007

C.B. 1 OKs luxury tower on West with conditions

By Skye H. McFarlane

The 50 West St. tower can rise to 63 stories, so long as a good chunk of the windfall lands squarely within Community Board 1 and the Greenwich South neighborhood, the board said Tuesday night.

Board 1 essentially yellow-lighted the proposed hotel and condominium. The board voted to approve the glassy tower’s two land-use actions, but only if the developer and the city fulfill a laundry list of 13 wide-ranging conditions.

To mitigate the impact of 150 hotel rooms and 300 apartments filled with new, wealthy residents, the community is insisting that the developer, Time Equities, fulfill its promises to provide a public art gallery within the building, as well as a laptop program for I.S. 89.

In addition, the community stressed in its five-page resolution that Time Equities must build affordable housing Downtown, overhaul two small neighborhood parks and facilitate the construction of a pedestrian bridge over West St. The developer must also conduct its demolition and construction work using the safest, greenest and least disruptive techniques available.

The board’s most stringent requirement, however, addresses the city. Because one of the land-use actions would allow Time Equities to purchase 180,000 square feet of air rights from over the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the city would stand to receive a significant profit from the development. The community is determined that 100 percent of the proceeds — likely in the tens of millions of dollars — be spent on projects within Lower Manhattan.

Chief among the community’s priorities for the money are the creation of affordable housing, the development of green space and sports fields, and the implementation of the Downtown Alliance streetscape program along Washington St. The board also asked the city to eliminate an extra 190,000 square feet of air rights that would be created by the land-use action, so that no future developer could ever apply to purchase them.

“These can’t just be pie-in-the-sky dreams,” said C.B. 1 Chairperson Julie Menin of the board’s conditions. “We really need concrete guarantees that we are going to get these things.”

Menin favored rejecting the project unless the conditions were met, but she couldn’t convince enough of her fellow board members to go along. She yielded when the language was change from “support” to “conditionally support.” The advisory resolution passed 34 to 5 with three abstensions.

Legally, the board’s opinion must be considered as a part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. However, the borough president’s office and the Department of City Planning also get to review the proposal. Because the application includes de-mapping a city street, the City Council will have the final say on the plan, even though C.B. 1 voted yes. Under most ULURPs, City Planning has the final say when the community board votes yes. If the Council approves the plan, Time Equities will purchase the air rights and create a pedestrian plaza along Ward St., the dark, narrow alley that separates the Battery Tunnel from 50 West St. to the north.

By rights, the developer can already take down the 13-story building on the site (known as the “copper-top” because the roof is painted green to look like copper patina). Current zoning, which caps bulk but not height, would then allow a 30- to 40-story building. By adding the 40-foot wide plaza — which would contain trees, cobblestone pavers and an outdoor café — the developer would earn the right to build another five to seven stories. That, combined with the air rights purchase, would put the building at a little over 500,000 square feet (63 stories under the current design).

There was much debate among board members over how to evaluate the proposed building. Many board members liked the building’s curving, near-transparent façade, designed by noted architect Helmut Jahn. They universally approved of Time Equities plan to seek a Gold rating from the U.S. Green Buildings Council. The building would also bring in customers to bolster the local retail scene.

To offset some of the building’s impact on the overcrowded local schools, Time Equities has proposed to provide laptops for all of the children in I.S. 89, along with maintenance and insurance for four years. The laptops would allow I.S. 89 to give its computer room to P.S. 89, which would convert the space into two regular classrooms to help alleviate acute class-size problems.

“There are other concerns with this project, but from a youth and education standpoint, we need the school space,” said Paul Hovitz, chair of the board’s Youth and Education Committee. “If we don’t do this, we are left to depend upon the [Department of Education] to address the overcrowding and we’ve seen how well that works out.”

After the community asked repeatedly for an art space in the building, Time Equities proposed to include a public art component, possibly light installations, in the hotel portion of the project. However, board members agreed that the laptops and the public art would not be enough to offset the extra stress that the new residents would put on local parks, schools and transportation systems.

Time Equities’ refusal to voluntarily include affordable housing in any of its Downtown projects also irked many board members, especially when a representative of the developer suggested that those people who could not afford to live in the neighborhood could always move to Brooklyn. Time will get state tax abatements as of right. A new version of the 421-a program would require Downtown developers to invest in affordable housing to get the tax benefits, but the bill, expected to pass June 21, will not take effect until June 2008.
“I really feel that the city can and should do more to press the developer to create affordable housing elsewhere in the district,” said board member Barry Skolnick.

A small number of board members wanted to reject the project altogether because of its large scale and precedent-setting use of city air rights. Others, including Menin, wanted to phrase the board’s opinion as a conditional rejection. The negative language, they felt, would make a stronger statement. The board compromised on “conditionally supports.”

Board members reasoned that since City Planning worked with the developers to craft the ULURP application, it would be unlikely that the City Council would outright reject the proposal. The Economic Development Corporation, the Battery Park City Authority and State Senator Martin Connor have also spoken in favor of the project. Councilmember Alan Gerson, who was involved in the negotiations with the developer, has not yet given his full support to the building, but his aide, David Feiner, has spoken in favor of the project at two different board meetings.

Therefore, the board decided it would be better not to fight the construction of the building, which will be very large regardless of the zoning variances. Instead they will fight to ensure that both the city and the developer make significant reinvestments in the neighborhood.
“I think it’s more than likely that we’ll get this building whether we like it or not,” said Battery Park City Committee chairperson Linda Belfer at a meeting Monday night. “We might as well get something in the way of mitigation.”

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