DOWNTOWN — Hotel workers took a turn in the spotlight at the latest hearing on the future of East Midtown Wednesday.
More than 100 blue-shirted members of the Hotel and Motel Trades Council packed the basement auditorium at the National Museum of the American Indian, where members of the City Planning Commission heard hours of testimony on whether to approve the city's controversial application to rezone 73 blocks around Grand Central Terminal to allow broader and taller skyscrapers.
The hearing, originally scheduled to take place at the Department of City Planning's headquarters, was moved to the larger auditorium due to the expected attendance. But even with the extra seats, the meeting was standing-room-only, with a line stretching out the door.
The trades council has opposed the city's rezoning application, which, under an amendment introduced last month, would allow commercial buildings that meet certain density requirements to convert parts of their properties to hotels. The union has said it would instead prefer potential hotel developers to be required to obtain special permits — a lengthy procedure that it claims would nonetheless help ensure developers consider using union labor.
"Hotel development needs to be carefully regulated in order to create a successful central business district," said union political director Josh Gold, who had previously called the rezoning proposal a "half-baked plan [that] jeopardizes tens of thousands of middle-class jobs."
Councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Jessica Lappin earned the morning's loudest applause from union members, who cheered their calls for special permits, even as they carefully avoided stating whether they support or oppose the rezoning plan as a whole.
Garodnick, who represents Manhattan's East Side, is believed to be seeking support from unions and other groups as he vies for the Council Speaker's seat, which will be left vacant with Christine Quinn's departure at the end of the year.
"It's vital that the rezoning take steps to reduce congestion on our streets, on our sidewalks, and in our public space," Garodnick said, echoing earlier comments he's made on the proposal.
He added that the fees developers would be required to pay to fund upgrades of subways, buses and streetscapes in the neighborhood should more closely "reflect the market conditions," and that the committee overseeing the transit-improvement fund "needs to be more inclusive. All mayoral appointees is a non-starter."
By comparison, Community Board 5 District Manager Wally Rubin — delivering testimony written by board member Lola Finkelstein, who chairs a Multi-Board Task Force on East Midtown comprised of Boards 1, 4, 5 and 6 — didn't mince words, reiterating the boards' strong opposition to the proposal.
"It's become clear to me that this property is flawed from the start," Rubin said, reading Finkelstein's prepared remarks. "What makes an office district competitive is not just the size of its buildings but the quality of its transit. There are simply too many unanswered questions."
Eight of Manhattan's 12 community boards have submitted resolutions or letters opposing the rezoning plan.
Nonetheless, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has fast-tracked the rezoning plan, and last month he claimed in a Daily News op-ed that the city can provide funds upfront for transit improvements now, so that the rezoning plan will not need to rely solely on money from private developers.
Deputy Mayor Robert Steel and real estate executive Mary Ann Tighe were among those who spoke in favor of the rezoning plan at the hearing.
"Outdated zoning and underfunded public infrastructure are holding East Midtown back," Steel said, pointing out that the average commercial building within the 73-block rezoning district is about 70 years old. "We must act now to change that."
Tighe, who is CEO of brokerage CBRE, called the rezoning "essential," adding that a sunrise provision that would delay developers from starting construction on new buildings for five years to avoid competition with the World Trade Center and Hudson Yards was unnecessary.
"It is so lengthy a process to develop in our city," she said. "The nature of the tenancy that is in Midtown East is different than the people going to the Yards."
The City Planning Commission has until the end of September to make a decision, but it is expected to do so at its final public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 25. The application then goes to the City Council.