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Councilwoman Won't Vote For Tech Hub Unless City Rezones Union Square South

By Allegra Hobbs | April 17, 2017 1:27pm
 A rendering of the new tech hall's entrance.
A rendering of the new tech hall's entrance.
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Mayor's Office

UNION SQUARE — A local councilwoman is threatening to withhold her approval of the city-backed Union Square Tech Hub — slated to replace the P.C. Richard & Son building on East 14th Street — unless the city agrees to rezone a cluster of nearby blocks preservationists fear will become an oversized "Silicon Alley" if left unchecked. 

Councilwoman Rosie Mendez has allied herself with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation's campaign to cap building heights in the corridor between University Place and Broadway, claiming she will use her vote on rezoning measures for the upcoming tech hub as leverage to make those protections a reality. 

"For years, I have advocated and requested a contextual rezoning of University Place. This proposed PC Richards Silicon Alley tech hub will impact residents in the area residing in the adjacent buildings, which are currently under great pressure by developers," said Mendez in a statement to DNAinfo New York.

"I would consider supporting the Tech Hub if, and only if, we can amend the zoning resolution to provide protections and relief to the surrounding community."

The 258,000-square-foot tech hub planned for 124 E. 14th St. would bring job-training facilities and workspaces for local start-ups, according to the mayor's office, and would create 600 jobs in tech and 800 in construction.

But activists with GVSHP believe that if the massive tech hub is allowed to grow at Union Square and the area below remains without height restrictions, the community could be facing a surge of similarly large developments, some catering to the tech community. 

Already, Quality Capital plans to stick a 14-story commercial building across from the Strand Bookstore at 827 Broadway, and, down the street, IDM Capital is replacing the five-story former Blatt Billiards site with a 15-story mixed-use building, Department of Building records show.

On University Place, a 23-story condo building replacing Bowlmor Lanes, the city's oldest bowling alley, is underway at the corner of E. 12th Street.

Developers for those projects did not immediately return requests for comment.

The developments fall between roughly 200 and 300 feet, which GVSHP said is too high for the corridor. The group's proposed rezoning would impose height limits of 95 to 145 feet depending on zoning district.

Mendez had joined the group in rallying for a version of the rezoning in 2015, but the pitch was rejected by the city. The latest rezoning proposal allows for slightly taller buildings to take into account the mayor's Zoning for Quality and Affordability initiative. 

"The tech hub is really going to be the do-or-die for this neighborhood," said Andrew Berman, the group's executive director, at a recent meeting about the "Silicon Valley" scare.

But the tech hub must undergo the city's rigorous Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), requiring City Council approval, to lock down a rezoning before construction can begin. That process is slated to begin this year, according to a presentation given by the city Economic Development Corporation at a February community board meeting. 

The City Council generally defers to the local councilmember while voting on a rezoning, Berman noted, meaning Mendez's approval will be critical if the city wants the tech hub to get the green light.

"If it happens during her term, if she stands firm and the council follows what is the usual protocol…she should be able to use that to leverage for, hopefully, some negotiated agreement with the mayor," said Berman, noting he has aso conferred with candidates poised to fight for her seat in the election this fall.

"We are very optimistic if this goes into the next term we’ll have strong support from whoever the next councilmember is," he said.

The barter has a recent precedent — the Landmarks Preservation Commission in October of last year agreed to designate the group's long-sought South Village Historic District in order to secure City Council approval for massive retail and housing development St. John's Terminal

The preservationist group will also push for amendments to a rezoning plan adopted in 2010 for a neighboring corridor between Third and Fourth avenues. The version approved seven years ago was a "compromise," Berman said, and the group now wants the city to recognize a version that would cut down the area's maximum floor area ratio (FAR) for commercial developments by two-thirds.

That amendment would yield more residential developments than offices or hotels, Berman said. The corridor is currently the site of a controversial hotel development that will replace five pre-war residences.

Mendez said she will also attempt to push for the amendments to that corridor, and for the addition of housing to the tech hub development. But she will not compromise on securing some height protections for the area between University Place and Broadway, she said.

"I do want to get additional protections on Third and Fourth avenues. I do not like this P.C. Richards site as being proposed right now and I would like to get some housing on there," Mendez told DNAinfo.

"I can make that negotiable — but University and Broadway have nothing, and I need to get that something."

A mayoral spokeswoman, however, pointed to community benefits offered by the tech hub and expressed disappointment in preservationists' mission to leverage a zoning change.

“Past versions of this proposal would have reduced new buildings to well below those that already exist in the neighborhood, and would not yield any incremental affordable housing. The Union Square Tech Hub stands on its own merits," said spokeswoman Melissa Grace. 

"Its purpose is to provide a gateway for real New Yorkers—kids from our high schools, public housing and immigrant communities—to get training and a good paying job in tech. It is disappointing certain groups would use that project as a pawn to change unrelated zoning blocks away.”