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Community Members Support Tech Hub But Urge Zoning

Community Board 3 Manhattan Community Board 3 Meeting gathers input on Union Square Tech Hub.

NEW YORK CITY—The New York City Economic Development Corp., RAL Development Services and the non-profit Civic Hall advocated for the proposed Union Square Tech Hub. The Manhattan Community Board 3 meeting was filled with almost 100 people. Approximately 80 attendees carried signs or wore stickers saying, “Tech Hub Must Include Zoning Protections.”

The public information session at the Lower East Side Girls Club in the East Village, held on Wednesday, was part of the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which is required for any land use changes.

New York City owns the property at 124 E. 14th St., currently leased to P.C. Richard & Sons. This structure will be demolished and RAL will build a 20-story, 258,000-square-foot office tower, paying the construction costs that it estimates at $250 million. The City will lease this property to RAL for 99 years. 

As another part of the deal, for 25 years, RAL will lease six of the floors to the non-profit Civic Hall, which will create a digital training center and provide flexible workspaces for tech startup companies. RAL will lease the other floors at market rate. The building is expected to open in 2020.

124 E. 14th Street Architectural rendering of 124 E. 14th St., which includes the Tech Hub

As announced in February, Mayor Bill de Blasio strongly supports the development. He says the Tech Hub will generate 600 good paying jobs and serve as a gateway to the tech world. At the meeting, Andrew Rasiej, Civic Hall’s founder and CEO, said his organization will assist underserved communities, bringing digital training to disadvantaged people, women, immigrants and entrepreneurs. The location in Union Square, along a downtown corridor of commerce, would be essential in connecting people to business opportunities, according to Rasiej.

Expressed through applause, cheers, and other reactions to speakers, the majority of the audience endorsed the community benefits of the project. However, they adamantly supported making approval of the Tech Hub contingent upon zoning protections curtailing future large-scale buildings.

They voiced concerns that ongoing massive developments are inappropriate for the neighborhood and are destroying the human scale and distinctive character of the Greater Village. Attendees also expressed worries that the tech industry would drive up rents, eliminate affordable housing and displace people.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation has requested rezoning that would put in place height limits for new developments, remove current incentives for hotel and dorm development, and promote or require the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments. The community non-profit asked for the rezoning protections to cover 14th to 8th streets, and Fifth to Third avenues.

But several Community Board 3 members, including land use, zoning, public & private housing committee chair MyPhuong Chung, economic development chair Meghan Joie and public member Tim Laughlin decisively expressed the need to keep the GVSHP rezoning request separate from the Tech Hub proposal to avoid slowing down the development.

Raisej said, “I’m going to ask you to not use our project as a wedge when there are so many benefits that can come from this project.”

Harry Bubbins, GVSHP East Village and special projects director, countered that it was offensive to call the rezoning request “a wedge.” He said people in the community had repeatedly asked for a stand-alone zoning protection resolution. They received endorsement from Manhattan’s Community Board 2 but still seek it from Community Board 3.

“Our proposal for Third and Fourth avenues would close the loophole that allows massive out-of-scale commercial development to evade the inclusionary housing. It avoids losing affordable housing units that the tech hub will already accelerate,” said Bubbins. “The residents here don’t want to live in Midtown.”

He added that it was possible to have all the benefits of the Tech Hub, while also supporting appropriate rezoning for the neighborhood.

GVSHP’s position is that current zoning does not adequately protect the Village. On Monday, the organization distributed an email providing examples: a 300-foot tower under consideration at 799 Broadway; a 311-room hotel under construction on 11th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues; and a 285-foot condo tower near completion at University Place and 12th Street.

The Department of City Planning says the area supports mixed-use zoning. It notes that University Place has buildings ranging from three to over 20 stories and that new developments are generally consistent with the existing neighborhood character. The department also supports consideration of the Tech Hub apart from the GVSHP studies.

In letters to the Department of City Planning director obtained by GlobeSt.com, Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer has repeatedly endorsed GVSHP’s rezoning proposal. However, she opposed conditioning approval of the Tech Hub on passing the zoning proposal.

Community member Fran Luck at the meeting said no single building, alone, changes the character of a neighborhood. Each large building can be approved on its individual merits, in isolation, as not harming the neighborhood. But Luck pointed out that everyone can see that collectively such developments have a substantial impact. She said to protect the neighborhood, to accomplish meaningful rezoning, the GVSHP proposal had to be tied to the Tech Hub.

Community Board 3 Manhattan Community Board 3 meeting on Wednesday evening.

People at the meeting wanted to know more details about the City’s lease with RAL, the Civic Hall lease, and the other below market leases. Jillian McLaughlin, assistant VP at NYCEDC, said the City has not yet signed the lease with RAL but has negotiated a preliminary agreement where a lease had been attached. She said if the proposal is approved, then the lease will become active and will be signed as part of the process.

NYCEDC did not provide the meeting attendees or GlobeSt.com with additional information about the terms of the proposed lease. The department did not respond to GlobeSt.com questions asking whether the City would be receiving any money from RAL for the 99-year-lease or whether RAL’s construction and maintenance of the property and below market lease of space to Civic Hall was the extent of its financial commitment.

At the meeting, RAL financial director Joshua Wein stated the below market rents to other non-profits working in conjunction with Civic Hall would be 20% below market rate. Although he could not disclose dollar amounts, he noted that restrictive language in the lease, such as renting to specific types of organizations would keep rents lower for the community purpose requirements of the agreement. Plus, lower security deposits and shorter terms for leases would be offered.

Community Board 3 member Enrique Cruz wanted more information about the agreements. He wanted assurances that the details, particularly pertaining to community benefits, would be memorialized in writing to ensure city benefits for the duration of the leases. He wondered if Civic Hall could not continue for the full term of its lease, whether their six floors would still be guaranteed to serve a community purpose.

Cruz said that when operations like RAL come into a community, people would like to see rezoning out of fear that the company or industry will push up the rents and displace residents and businesses.

“Would you consider adding your names to push some of the city agencies to have that done, since you’re the ones coming into the community?” Cruz asked.

Following a Community Board 3 recommendation, NYCEDC will bring the Tech Hub proposal for approval to the Manhattan Borough president, the City Planning Commission and finally the City Council for a vote.

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