New Twists in Blood Center Debate

At Brewer’s public hearing, union members raised issues of NIMBYism and race, while community opponents of the plan appealed for unity

| 16 Jul 2021 | 04:04

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer heard from the public this week on the New York Blood Center’s controversial proposal to build a 334-foot life sciences hub at its Upper East Side location as part of the city’s formal land use review process.

The project includes a modernization of the Blood Center’s headquarters at East 67th Street, which would take up four floors of the building, as well as 11 floors of commercial space that developers say will be leased to nonprofit life science organizations. Partnering with NYBC is the Boston-based real estate group Longfellow, which has experience in building such life science hubs. Longfellow would finance the construction of the new building and own the top commercial office and lab space while NYBC would own its four floors. With research institutions such Weill Cornell Medical, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Rockefeller University within a few blocks of the prospective site, officials representing NYBC have argued the project offers a great opportunity for future collaboration.

For the most part, the hearing was a re-litigation of the arguments against the Blood Center’s proposal that have been made by the community since the proposal was introduced last October. The community has taken issue with the height of the building and the residential to commercial zoning it would require; the new afternoon shadows the tower would cast on the nearby St. Catherine’s Park and Julia Richman Education Complex, which houses some students with autism and other special needs; the inclusion of bio-safety level 3 labs, which tend to handle dangerous pathogens; as well as a perceived refusal on the part of NYBC to heed the community’s concerns and compromise.

Sickle Cell Research

But at Monday’s hearing, members representing local labor unions who have been promised work on this project spoke out in favor of the life sciences hub, and argued that the community’s opposition to keep people of color out of the Upper East Side, that this was yet another example of elites holding a “Not In My Backyard” attitude, and that opposing the new center would be detrimental to the research conducted by the Blood Center, particularly research on sickle cell disease, which disproportionately affects Black people.

“Opponents of this project complain that new people will crowd their space. We think that people like our members, New Yorkers of color, public housing residents, and immigrants looking to work in the Upper East Side medical corridor, or simply to seek medical care, should be welcomed, not kept out and excluded,” Justice Favor, an organizer for Construction & General Building Laborers’ Local 79, said at the hearing Monday. “City government cannot afford to allow opposition from wealthy elites to stand in the way of thousands of family sustaining jobs for communities and life-saving cures and treatments.’

Favor also seemed to be amused by the community’s concern with the shadows the building would cast, noting that communities of color often do not get the same voice in decision making when development is planned in those neighborhoods.

“I may not understand what a shadow is like – I’m learning new things as well,” said Favor. “I come up from a community where we didn’t have equity in terms of decision making in our parks. They just build around our parks, and we got along.”

Cris Mercado, the head of career success at the Knowledge House -- a technology education nonprofit focused on expanding employment opportunities to youth and young adults in NYC – too found the loss of natural light in the area to be a frivolous concern.

“I’ve heard a lot about shadows and natural light,” said Mercado, who argued the new development would offer great opportunity to young people in tech. “When I think about the black and brown folks who I predominantly serve, when I think about the two decades I grew up living as an undocumented immigrant living in shadows that a lot of people cannot relate too – the shadows that a building would cast upon an area upon your block does not compare to the shadow of systemic inequality that colors folks like me who have been historically excluded.”

Emotional Response

The accusations of NIMBYism and wanting to exclude people of color elicited an emotional response from many neighbors who testified, saying those arguments could not be further from the truth.

Valerie Mason, a vice chair on Community Board 8 and the president of the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association, directly addressed the union members in an appeal to unity.

“I am a member of a union family. My grandfather, my uncles were all members of the construction unions,” said Mason. “When I walk around New York, I see all of the buildings they built and I’m really proud of them. My mother, a member of CWA 1101, she’s 94 years old and has health care that her union provided her. I know how strong and how important those jobs are. And what I’m asking you tonight is to join the coalition to stop the tower – because what is happening here tonight is a commercial developer is trying to pit New Yorkers against each other. We should not be divided!”

Mason continued, inviting the union members to sit down with the community coalition to review their alternate site suggestions her group has come up with. She also insisted the community does support construction and union jobs, citing the lengthy Second Avenue subway project.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who was in attendance at the hearing, later told Our Town that he also disagreed with the characterization from union reps that neighbors are seeking to keep out workers of color.

“We haven’t received any evidence whatsoever that a commercial biotech office tower would somehow be occupied by workers of color. In fact, what we’ve seen from other biotech spaces is that the workers they are largely white,” said Kallos. “And so one of the questions we’ve asked throughout this is, is there a better location if we want to grow jobs in the city that are high paying? Why not build biotech at the proton center in East Harlem where we literally have an empty lot and we haven’t found a partner who’s willing to invest in a Black and brown community in our city?”

Brewer, who appeared at a “Stop the Tower” protest in May, does not have power to stop the project, but will be delivering a recommendation to the City Planning Commission in the month ahead.