Upper East Side residents are ready to do battle over the proposed 334-foot tower being pushed by the New York Blood Center, which would require a midblock rezoning they fear could set a dangerous precedent across the city.
Anger and skepticism over the project — an expansion of the Blood Center at East 67th Street topped by 11 floors of commercial space — have been brewing since it was introduced in October. Residents have bemoaned the new afternoon shadows the project would cast on the nearby St. Catherine’s Park and Julia Richman Education Complex, as well as the change from residential to commercial zoning the building’s height would require.
But the Blood Center’s decision to forgo a chance to present is plans to a Community Board 8 committee last week – and in turn listen to the community’s concerns — only added fuel to neighbors’ fury and left some feeling as though NYBC had been disingenuous when in the past its leaders had claimed to want to work with the community on this project. Some testifying at the zoning committee meeting said NYBC’s absence revealed an arrogance that their board believe that no matter how poorly the proposal has been sitting with residents, the city will approve the plan.
In a statement to Our Town, Rob Purvis, the nonprofit’s executive vice president, said NYBC values community input, but decided to make a single presentation at CB8’s May 12 land use meeting, which he said is “subject to the more rigorous notice requirements for the ULURP hearing.”
Indeed, the project is in the midst of the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), and was recently certified by the Department of City Planning. The community board has until June 28 to hold its hearing and take a formal vote on the project.
“This will ensure the widest range of stakeholders are informed of their opportunity to learn about and comment on the project,” Purvis said.
Without NYBC’s presence, opponents of the project used last week’s committee meeting as both a call to arms and as a dress rehearsal for the more formal hearing where they plan to refute the Blood Center’s own rationale for the project.
“It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to, as Hawkeye Pierce used to say, get off our tushies. The reason the Blood Center is not here, in one humble man’s opinion, is because $175,000 to Suri Kasirer has this in the bag,” CB8 member Ed Harzog said of NYBC’s payments in the last year to one of the city’s top lobbyists.
He encouraged other residents to reach out to local representatives at all levels of government and ask them where they stand on this project. Fellow board member Michele Birnbaum said it was time to rally.
“I’m not averse to a sidewalk rally, a peaceful protest in front of whatever facility we think is best: the mayor, downtown at City Hall, the Blood Center premises,” said Birnbaum. “But I think we need to start making our voices heard in a very loud way — a peaceful way, but loud.”
Council Member Ben Kallos encouraged neighbors to fill out a survey (https://benkallos.com/petition/bloodcenter) on his website to express their position on the project.
Life Sciences Hub
For his part, UES resident Marty Bell gave a presentation attempting to undermine one of NYBC’s key arguments for maintaining its current site at East 67 Street to build the tower, despite the concerns over shadows and rezoning requirements. Leaders of the NYBC say it’s important to build the project here so that the Blood Center and tenants of the life sciences hub it envisions, dubbed Center East, are able to collaborate with nearby research institutions, including Weill Cornell Medical Center and Rockefeller University, which are both in walking distance.
Bell, however, presented letters from three health officials who say close physical proximity is not a key determining factor when choosing collaborators in modern research.
“I have been involved in various aspects of medical research for more than 25 years, and never once has ‘close physical proximity’ been the sole determinative factor, in the selection of fellow researchers with whom I have collaborated,” Dr. Mark Poznansky, the former director of the National Institutes of Health who also conducts vaccine research at Massachusetts General Hospital, wrote in a letter to the board dated April 23.
Through a review of public research documents of its website, Bell showed that the Blood Center had worked more frequently with out-of-state researchers than those on the Upper East Side. Additionally, the review showed the Blood Center has worked with collaborators in China more times than with Weill Cornell.
“If it was just to get a big building that violated longstanding midblock zoning, I have to be honest, I wouldn’t be this angry. But this project isn’t just wrong — it is evil,” Bell said. “It would put an important neighborhood playground largely in shadows during critical hours when it’s most used by families in this community. And worse than that, it would put six schools across the street, including one school for autistic children, in permanent shadows — and that simply is not acceptable.”
In a statement, Purvis responded to Bell’s argument, maintaining that physical proximity to East Side medical research institutions is key to the project.
“The most vibrant and successful life science centers in the United States are anchored by clusters of institutions that benefit deeply from the collaborative opportunities that physical proximity provides,” said Purvis, using NYU Langone’s partnership with a similar hub in Kips Bay as an example. “But New York remains far behind the leading life sciences centers in attracting and nurturing the institutions and companies that make up the industry.”
He added, “Center East will contribute significantly to the City’s efforts to close that gap by providing the Blood Center with 21st century facilities and by adding a critical mass of product developers to the complex of institutions that includes the Blood Center and its neighboring research partners at New York Presbyterian, Memorial Sloan Kettering and Rockefeller Institute.”
The Blood Center will make their presentation at the board’s land use meeting Wednesday, May 12 at 6:30 p.m.
“I think we need to start making our voices heard in a very loud way — a peaceful way, but loud.” CB8 board member Michele Birnbaum