“Let us have peace”– the words of Ulysses S. Grant– hung high on the ceiling of the City Council’s austere chambers. But down below, at a hearing yesterday, a not-so-peaceful conflict brewed over a proposed $250 million, 21-story retail and tech center off of Union Square.
The building, at 14th Street and Irving, would replace the existing P.C. Richard & Son. The proposed structure has been informally dubbed the 14th Street Tech Hub. A nickname of “Silicon Alley” also persists among local residents opposed to not only this structure, but other tech-related developments south of the 14th Street corridor that they claim have been spurred in part by the announcement of the mega-development.
New York City Economic Development Corporation granted the project to real-estate developer RAL Companies & Affiliates—which has led large-scale projects like the million-square foot One Brooklyn Bridge Park—with the intent of creating a commercial space that would, in theory, facilitate the development of local small businesses and provide low-cost or free workforce training for the booming tech sector, particularly for low-income earners and residents of color in the Village who historically have had difficulty accessing these services.
But some Lower Manhattan residents in attendance at yesterday’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing disapprovingly waved signs with heated slogans like “Why won’t Mayor de Blasio work with neighborhoods?”
Siegfried Zelt, an East Village resident affiliated with the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, said he wasn’t opposed to development, but that appropriate safeguards needed to be in place to protect the local community and ensure that area housing remained affordable. “We are not here to oppose a tech corridor on 14th Street. We just don’t want the whole place to explode and turn into out-of-scale development.” Zelt worried that the Village would soon wind up looking like the high-rises of Midtown South. He shook his head, bemoaning the state of developers taking over Manhattan. “These developers have no compunction…it’s like a Wild West for them.”
The hearing opened with a quick introduction of the project by subcommittee chair Francisco P. Moya. Council Member Carlina Rivera also said—with a rather pointed look towards representative affiliated with the project—that “critical openings” to engage with the community were missed. Without additional zoning protections for local tenants and assurances that the building would indeed serve low-income earners, immigrants and residents of color—including tuition scholarships for tech trainings—her vote on the project was “seriously in question.”Afterwards, representatives affiliated with the project provided a detailed overview. NYCEDC Assistant Vice President Jillian McLaughlin opened her pitch with some stats: nearly 300,000 jobs for tech in New York City, and 44% of them are accessible to individuals without college degrees. As far as the building: it would offer “flexible office space” on at least five of its 21 floors for growing local startups and small local businesses (so not your typical Silicon Valley-like megalopolis). Some 25% of the space would be reserved for first-time vendors, and the leases would be offered for a period of between five months and five years to allow small businesses flexibility. Another six floors of the building would contain event space for community members’ use; the much-touted digital skills training and workshops; and space for Civic Hall, a three-year-old nonprofit which utilizes technology for the public good, including bridging the digital skills gap in many of New York City’s schools. The city has arranged a 99-year lease with RAL and a 25-year lease with Civic Hall.
The project representatives faced a barrage of questions, largely from Council Member Rivera, whose district will be most severely impacted by the proposed development. During public commentary at the end of the hearing, members of Community Board 3, which previously voted to approve the project, reminded the council that the Tech Hub came about in part due to requests from the community board for such a center to provide low-cost or free education to residents. At the same time, they acknowledged concerns around zoning protections, land use and affordable housing, which they were examining “block by block.”
A representative from New York State Assemblymember Deborah J. Glick’s office stated that “without protections, this ULURP stands to further erode the community” and urged the City Council to deny the project’s application. Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer brought to light similar concerns about rezoning around the site and the commercial building height limits on Broadway, though she acknowledged in support of the project that tech was a key priority in a 2017 community board survey.
Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, also provided testimony. While he was willing to swallow a Tech Hub on 14th Street—even one larger than current zoning laws allow—he was frustrated with the lack of engagement with residents’ concerns. “The Mayor has said it’s his way or the highway,” said Berman with a dramatic flourish. He therefore urged council members to vote no unless protections for adjacent neighborhoods were attached to the final proposal. Without those protections, the Tech Hub would threaten to “accelerate the destruction of these adjoining predominantly residential, low‐to‐mid‐rise neighborhoods,” according to Berman.
At the end of the day, the Union Square Tech Hub proposal raises a bigger question: how does the city balance the needs of commercial and modern workforce development with safeguards for affordable housing and quality of life? No clear verdict was reached on that front by the end of the hearing, however. It remains to be seen when a vote on the project will take place.