Controversy over Blood Center Expansion Plan

Community groups oppose NYBC attempt to rezone area for a larger life sciences center

| 26 Dec 2020 | 10:21

The New York Blood Center’s plan to expand their building on East 67th Street between First and Second Avenues was presented to the NYC Department of Planning on December 15. The proposal has been a source of controversy among residents of the Upper East Side who see the project as unprecedented for the neighborhood, as the project jeopardizes the status of the UES midblock zoning. The district map, which was designed to preserve the residential character of the neighborhood’s midblocks, while placing commercial-use buildings on the avenues, was introduced in 1985, and since then, no building in New York City with its status has ever been rezoned.

The New York Blood Center, a nonprofit blood bank that started in 1964 has expanded to supply blood to over 500 hospitals nationally and reported its total assets to be worth over $555 million dollars in 2017. The current site of the New York Blood Center at 310 East 67th Street is a three-story former trade school built in 1930, which the NYBC contends is too small and outdated.

The plan for NYBC’s new building involves requesting a zoning map amendment to rezone the development site from an R8B midblock to a C2-7 commercial district, and to rezone the rest of the project area from a commercial C1-9 to a more highly developed commercial C2-8, on both sides of Second Avenue between 66th and 67th.

The need to upzone is due to the scale of the proposed NYBC building, which is not characteristic of Upper East Side midblock buildings. The new center will have a 30,000 square foot floor plate and will be 16 stories, but 334 feet tall, due to each floor’s 16-foot floor-to-floor height to allow for mechanical systems in the ceilings.

“This is truly a midtown-sized building sandwiched on a densely populated public block that has one of the only parks in this part of the neighborhood, and a public school, next to a public library,” Rachel Levy, the Executive Director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historical Districts said in an interview.

Commercial Partners

Controversy over the potential rezoning of a residential area has been exacerbated as well by the New York Blood Center’s plan to house laboratories for life science “partners” in the building. If the building’s plans are approved, out of the 596,200 gross square feet that the building will possess, the NYBC will occupy only 206,400 square feet, while the NYBC’s commercial partners will occupy 389,800 square feet, according to the Draft Scope of Work filed with the city. With 18 floors in total, including the new building’s two basement floors and two mechanical floors, NYBC would occupy six floors of the new center, while nine would be occupied by life science partners, and one would be a co-used floor between NYBC and a partner. The new building would house 2,630 employees, 580 of which would work for NYBC, while the remaining 2,050 would be partners. 230 NYBC employees are employed at the 67th Street building they currently occupy.

“The partners are essentially tenants,” Levy claimed, echoing a similar concern among community board and civic association members. But a NYBC spokesperson contends that “The nature of research and innovation requires the collaborative relationships that this space facilitates.”

When asked about community concerns about the partners, a spokesperson for NYBC declined to answer who the partners would be but stressed the need to integrate NYBC’s activities with those of other life science organizations.

Elizabeth Rose, a former Deputy Chancellor of the Department of Education, felt that such statements are a fig leaf for the Blood Center’s efforts to transfer the nonprofit use of the lot to a for-profit use: “They [NYBC] can accomplish all they need on their current location with no change in zoning at all. So why are they seeking these multiple and significant changes to their zoning?”

The type of commercial zoning that NYBC is requesting would allow for commercial laboratories that require fume hoods of the kind for applied medical and dental laboratory that the Blood Center doesn’t currently do. NYBC has also requested an amendment to allow the building to erect signage at the top of its base “to create an identity for the building,” which would be of interest to potential commercial tenants.

The New York Blood Center has also submitted renovation plans for their current building if their requests for rezoning are denied. This new building would be capped at 60-75 feet, would be 229,092 gross square feet and would employ 670 employees, eliminating any space for commercial partners, and would meet its current residential zoning requirements. Many critics, such as Levy, find the fact that NYBC can expand without rezoning their building for commercial land use, while gaining nearly 100 more employees and nearly 20,000 more square feet of space than they would with commercial status, to be a glaring fact: “The only benefit to the with action proposal is the huge profit New York Blood Center will generate from the commercial portion of the building.”

Casting a Shadow

A major source of concern among many UES residents is the potential impact that a building of the proportion that NYBC is asking for will have on the area. With the Julia Richman Education Complex located on the same block, and St. Catherine’s Park located one block north, the shadow that the building will cast on the green space is significant, even in the more conservative shadow sweep study carried out by the Blood Center.

According to George M. Janes, an urban planner hired by Community Board 8 and Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, the new building will cast a significant shadow on the park from 2 to 5 P.M. from the spring through the fall. “That’s when people take their kids to the park after school, it’s the absolute worst time to have a shadow in the park.” The City’s Environmental Assessment Statements on the project identify St. Catherine’s as an already “sunlight sensitive resource,” and voiced concerns about the new zoning potentially having an impact that makes it difficult for businesses currently located on Second avenue to stay in the area.

When asked about the potential negative impact the new building might have on the Julia Richman Education Center or St. Catherine’s Park, a spokesperson from NYBC commented, “Local residents’ input is important to us and we are looking forward to having many more productive conversations with the community board and other stakeholders such as Friends of St. Catherine’s Park.”

The expansion of New York Blood Center’s location is a project that the nonprofit has pursued in the past, having been opposed previously by former Council Member Jessica Lappin, but has been given a new incentive by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2016 LifeSciNYC Initiative, a 10-year, $500 million investment in the city’s commercial life sciences sector.

Although NYBC stated that they and their real estate partner Longfellow Real Estate Partners LLC, a Massachusetts based real estate developer that does work in developing research and technology centers, will jointly own the campus, George M. Janes echoed a concern that the building may one day be sold and not be occupied by the Blood Center at all: “If the rezoning passes, NYBC has no obligation to build this building. The new zoning would allow for residential uses and all kinds of commercial uses. It could be they have the intention to do exactly what they’re saying, but they also have the ability to do anything else.”

If the project is approved, construction is estimated to take 51 months and last from 2022 to 2026.

“This is truly a midtown-sized building sandwiched on a densely populated public block that has one of the only parks in this part of the neighborhood, and a public school, next to a public library.” Rachel Levy, Friends of the Upper East Side Historical Districts