Last week, during a marathon City Council hearing, the developers pushing a rezoning effort for the New York Blood Center said it would reduce the height of its proposed commercial tower in response to community concern - but the concession may be too little too late to achieve buy-in from Upper East Siders who have been staunch in their opposition to the project from the start.
In their presentation to the zoning committee, Blood Center representatives said they would lower the height of the proposed life sciences tower at East 67th Street from 334 feet to 276 feet. The 58-foot height reduction, which would be accomplished mainly through the elimination of mechanical space, would reduce the amount of shadows cast on St. Catherine’s Park, which has been a focus for neighborhood residents who oppose the project.
That concession is the first significant alteration NYBC and its development partners, the Boston-based real estate group Longfellow, have made to their proposal during the months-long Uniform Land Use Review Process. In fact, NYBC’s hesitancy to make adjustments has been a major source of frustration for the opposition, who have felt as though the Blood Center was unwilling to listen to them. NYBC and Longfellow, however, feel that it’s not that they are unwilling to listen, but that meeting the opposition’s demands - constructing a building as of right or finding a new location - would make it impossible to meet their programmatic goals.
Life Sciences Hub
NYBC have long argued, often through their land use attorney Paul Selver, that the nonprofit cannot afford to build a new headquarters to replace their outdated setup and are relying on Longwood for the financing for the project - meaning building something in line with the current zoning ordinance would be unfeasible. Additionally, NYBC has said constructing this life sciences hub on the Upper East Side within walking distance of research institutions such as Cornell Medical, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Rockefeller University would be essential for future collaboration.
“We’ve looked at this for over a decade trying to figure out how exactly and how big the building would have to be, and this is the smallest building that we can come up with that is financially viable in order to make a new blood center on this site,” Blood Center President and CEO Christopher Hillyer said in response to questions from committee Chair Francisco Moya on whether a smaller building would be feasible. Hillyer added that a 75-foot building within the zoning code would cost more than the proposed tower, estimating the price at $463 million.
None of this - the promise to reduce the height or additional incentives, like several millions to fund playground improvements at St. Catherine’s Park and help to soundproof windows at the adjacent Julia Richman Education Complex - was persuasive to the Manhattan elected officials who oppose the project.
“We simply cannot accept this radical rezoning in a midblock residential neighborhood,” State Sen. Liz Kreuger said in her testimony.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the Blood Center needs to withdraw the current proposal and try again.
During his questioning period, Council Member Ben Kallos made news of his own, declaring that his office has identified at least one developer in the city interested in building a new building for the Blood Center as of right and “likely at no cost.” Additionally, Kallos said he’s identified vacant commercial space with greater square footage than what they could build at the Blood Center for Longfellow on the Upper East Side for their biotech ambitions.
“Everyone can win,” said Kallos. “Blood Center gets a new building, Longfellow and the city gets twice as much biotech space, nearby commercial towers get new tenants, students in Julia Richmond can still have sunlight on their playground, and thousands of hospital workers and children can still enjoy the sunshine at St. Catherine’s Park, the only park in the neighborhood. It’s a win, win, win, win, win.”
A spokesperson for Kallos said he could not yet name the developer the Council member mentioned during the hearing. A spokesperson for Brewer, however, said the borough president, as well as Kallos and Kreuger, have had informal conversations with the real estate firm, Related, about their interest in constructing such a building.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Related said the firm has not spoken with anyone from the Blood Center.
“We have no idea what the Blood Center’s programmatic desires are, we’ve never had a conversation with them, and implying otherwise is just not accurate,” the spokesperson for Related said in a statement. The spokesperson, however, after several requests, refused to clarify whether the company did in fact have conversations with the elected officials.
No developer has contacted the Blood Center about a possible development offer, a spokesperson for NYBC told Our Town.
With no sign that the two sides will find common ground, the rezoning issue will soon be decided by the Council - though Brooklyn Council Member Antonio Reynoso urged the sides to come together.
“I hope that you and Council Member Kallos can sit more,” Reynoso told representatives for the Blood Center, “and get to a place where we can all be happy.”