Blood Center: The Political Tide Turns

Support for project grows after NYBC reduces height of proposed tower. But “the fight is not over,” say some opponents

| 12 Nov 2021 | 11:49

The New York Blood Center lopped 116 feet off the new tower it is proposing to build on the East Side and that turned the political tide.

“After years of discussion and weeks of challenging negotiations, we now have a project that we’re enthusiastically supporting,” announced a group of previous opponents, including the City Council Speaker, Cory Johnson, and the Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer.

The combined weight of the mayor, the construction trades, and Black and Latino leadership had apparently overwhelmed the deference the City Council usually pays to the local Council Member, in this case Ben Kallos, who has been fiercely opposed to the project and said the new plan was better but still not good enough.

“We came close to a win-win for both sides, but we haven’t gotten there,” said Kallos.

The plan was approved by the Council Land Use Committee and was scheduled for a vote in the full City Council later this month. “But the fight is not over,” one of the opponents, the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, declared in an email to its followers. The opponents clung to the hope they could still block the plan by invoking an arcane rule that requires a supermajority vote in the full Council for approval if a project is opposed by any of its immediate neighbors.

Whichever way the final vote turns out, the saga of the New York Blood Center’s effort to build this new headquarters has entered the annals of modern day New York City development fights alongside the neighborhood drives that blocked Amazon’s new hub in Queens and the plan for an Industry City in Sunset Park.

In both those cases local opposition doomed the plans. For a time, it looked like neighborhood opposition on the East Side would consign the Blood Center to the same fate. But the Blood Center, a nonprofit that provides most of the region’s blood supply, rallied unions, Black and Latino groups and the de Blasio administration.

“It’s hard to tell a nonprofit that saves lives, to say no to them, when they’re trying to increase their capacity and their research for New Yorkers,” the chair of the Council’s land use committee, Rafael Salamanca said to Politico. “It’s hard to tell them no when your only argument is you’re concerned about the shadows in your community.”

That shadow is the one the new tower would throw across East 67th street between First and Second Avenues and on to St Catherine’s Park.

Change in Zoning Rules

The new tower was originally proposed at 334 feet, roughly the equivalent of a 33-story building (although this would actually have fewer floors because many would be for research facilities with high ceilings).

The community objected to the shadow as well as to the increased traffic and to the principle of building such a large structure in the middle of a row-house block, a major change in the zoning rules for that area.

The project, said the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District, “threatens the integrity of low-scale midblock zoning citywide.”

To ease the opposition, the Blood Center reduced the height of the building to 218 feet, more than 100 feet shorter than the original plan although still substantially above the 75-foot height limit for midblocks in that neighborhood.

“I know people are mad about this on principle,” wrote Ben Wetzler, an Upper East Side district leader, “but this is a 1/3 reduction in height and will be short enough it won’t penetrate the sky exposure plane. You’ll barely notice it from the park.”

Wetzler praised Brewer and Keith Powers, a council member whose district is adjacent to the controversial project, for negotiating the changes, which still left some unsatisfied.

“Despite the alterations, the tower is still entirely too large for its location on a narrow residential side street (over 3x the existing height limit of 75 feet),” said the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts.

Funding for Park

In addition to cutting the height of the building, the Blood Center also agreed to provide $10.65 million in funding for St. Catherine’s Park and $2 million to the neighboring Julia Richman Education complex. The developers will also play for soundproofing to insulate the school complex from construction noise.

The Blood Center pledged to create education programs for high school and college students and to fund sickle cell research initiatives by local groups.

There will also be a provision that would prevent the Blood Center’s new building from being resold or redeveloped.

The Blood Center said the project would “transform” its “outdated building into a 21st century facility that supports the center’s core functions as NYC’s blood supplier and research leader on blood-related diseases like COVID, sickle cell, HIV.”

The first five stories would be used by the Blood Center itself and the rest, 11 floors, “would be rented to life-science companies to foster the development of scientific medical advances for patients.”

The developer is Boston based Longfellow Real Estate Partners, which would control the commercial portion of the building.

“Troubling Precedent”

The deal, said Council Member Kallos, “sets a troubling precedent for council members’ ability to win for the city and their constituents ... we become a city where real estate developers are only emboldened to sidestep the concerns of the communities in which they build.”

As the negotiations over the tower grew intense in recent days so did some of the accusations traded between the parties.

Kallos accused de Blasio of a serious conflict of interest because he owed the law firm representing the Blood Center, Kramer, Levin & Naftalis, $435,000 in fees for representing him during unrelated federal investigations of purported campaign funding quid pro quos.

At the same time the New York Post published an article noting that “most of the unites” in a 16-story condominium next door to the Blood Center are owned by Michael Epstein, who rented several of the apartments to his now deceased brother, Jeffrey Epstein, who used them to keep underaged girls he was sexually abusing.

Michael Epstein and the board of the condo have been fierce critics of the Blood Center redevelopment and, as a neighboring building, are important to the effort to invoke the clause requiring a supermajority in the council to approve the project.

“This planted article in the New York Post is clearly a last ditch effort by the Blood Center and its representatives to make it politically feasible for Council members to vote in favor of the rezoning, despite the consequences,” said a statement from the organization representing residents of the building, Eastsiders for Responsible Zoning.

“The entire Board of 301 East 66th Street voted unanimously to take legal action against the proposed scheme to massively upzone the New York Blood Center site,” the statement added. “If this rezoning is approved, it would also set a horrible precedent for potential future rezonings across the city, placing all contextual zoning actions previously taken to protect a neighborhoods character in jeopardy.”

“We came close to a win-win for both sides, but we haven’t gotten there.” City Council Member Ben Kallos