Rendering of the Union Square Tech Hub at 120 East 14th Street. (Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office).

As you may have heard, the city’s proposed (and controversial) $250 million, 21-story retail and tech center off of Union Square moved forward last week. Council Member Carlina Rivera was key to the City Council’s unanimous vote, as her district will be most severely impacted by the so-called “Tech Hub.” During last year’s election, Rivera had even campaigned in part on the tech center, proposed for the site of the former PC Richard & Son at 120 East 14th Street. In a previous hearing on it, Rivera had said that without additional zoning protections south of 14th Street for local tenants and assurances that the building would indeed serve low-income earners, immigrants and residents of color—including tuition scholarships for tech training—that her vote was “seriously in question.”

To Rivera’s credit, the deal that moved forward last week did include some of the provisions that she had sought, including the placement of seven different properties around the Broadway corridor on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s calendar; a focus on small start-ups (as opposed to big retailers) in the space; a “tenant-protection” campaign to inform tenants living in rent-stabilized buildings south of the Tech Hub of their rights; and additional protections for the Merchant’s House Museum, next to which an eight-story hotel will be constructed.

A sign burnished by an attendee of a hearing on the Tech Hub (Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

However, the deal didn’t appease some community members, who had fought for additional protections for the neighborhood. Following the vote, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, issued a scathing statement that largely targeted Rivera for purportedly failing to live up to campaign promises of neighborhood protections. Specifically, the group desired a reduction in “the allowable size of commercial developments (hotels and office buildings) in the 3rd and 4th Avenue corridors” and height restrictions on new developments in the University Place and Broadway corridors.

“The City Council’s deal approves the Mayor’s Tech Hub with just a fraction of a fraction of the protections the surrounding neighborhood needs and called for, and which Councilmember Rivera promised to condition her vote upon,” Berman said in the press release. “The approval of the Tech Hub will accelerate the transformation of the adjacent Greenwich Village and East Village neighborhoods into an extension of ‘Midtown South’ and ‘Silicon Alley.'”

In the wake of the vote, Rivera invited members of the media to an editorial roundtable, where she largely defended her vote to move the site proposal forward, stating that “we were negotiating to the very last minute” and that they received most—if not all—the protections that she had sought in the area surrounding the tech center, from 3rd Avenue to University Place south of 14th Street.

“The final vote was not going to happen unless we got the protections. We got zoning measures that blanket the entire area we’ve been fighting for,” said Rivera. She noted that they had reaped two key victories, which were land use protections that were “overdue” in the area and a guarantee of 1,400 jobs—an estimated 650 of which will be permanent—through the Tech Hub. In addition to the $200,000 annual contribution to scholarship opportunities for residents seeking tech training at the center, which Rivera also considered a clear success, she felt confident that the tech center would be inclusive and benefit low-income, immigrant and women residents of the Lower East Side and elsewhere. The site’s proposal included a target goal from developers that “25 percent of trainees at the Tech Training Center will be District 2 residents,” per Rivera’s previous letter.

“I wanted to be able to provide workforce training to someone who lives on Avenue D and someone who lives on Broadway…[tech] is a growing industry. We wanted to be able to build a bridge to those jobs. Nothing means more to me to have an inclusive building…there are not enough women of color in STEM in my humble opinion.”

Rivera disputed Berman’s interpretation of the vote, stating that she was serving the needs of Community Board 3—which had been requesting a workforce center for the past three years—and working to provide “economic opportunities and preservation” for the community. Furthermore, she asserted that she had been in direct communication with him about the difficulties of getting zoning protections in the area south of 14th Street. “This campaign for protections in this area is something that has fallen on deaf ears for the last [several] years. When we discussed the measures [that] we were going to try to implement, I was very honest about that—especially with Berman, who was with us every step of this process.”

(Image via New York City Council website)

In the week following the vote, Rivera’s office sent a letter to Marisa Lago, director of the Department of City Planning, that requested “immediate action to protect the area south of Union Square” to implement a plan for development that took into consideration affordable housing needs. Rivera drew specific attention to the demolition of five tenement buildings below East 11th Street for the construction of the Moxy Hotel. The Council Member urged the department to set forth a City Council Special Permit “in the area south of Union Square from 3rd Avenue to University Place” which would require “a site-specific review process” to facilitate the appropriate placement of hotels only in areas that can accommodate the impacts of such large-scale development.

Quick on the draw, Berman and the GVSHP responded with another press release that was equally critical—if not more so—of Rivera than their previous statement. “Councilmember Carlina Rivera’s plan released today is a pale shadow of the zoning protections she publicly promised would be necessary for her to approve the Tech Hub, and hardly qualifies as ‘zoning protections.’…It will take months for this requirement to be adopted into law, while the added development pressure from the Tech Hub approval takes effect now.” He continued to describe her proposal as akin to “firing a starting gun to developers” and maintained in the same statement that “Councilmember Rivera broke her promise to the community and voted for a commercial upzoning which will increase development pressure on these neighborhoods…trying to pass off flimsy measures with little effect as the protections this community fought for won’t change that.”