Community Board 8 took action on Tuesday, May 25 against the New York Blood Center’s divisive plan to build a 334-foot life sciences hub at its Upper East Side location – passing a resolution urging the city to reject the project.
The 38-0 vote in favor of the resolution, with one member abstaining with cause, followed a barn burner of a special meeting in which board members took the Blood Center to task over the details of the plan and what they view as the center’s unwillingness to compromise. The board has until June 28 to issue its recommendation to the city, as according to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP). The matter will then move on to the borough president’s office.
The tone and substance of the meeting further confirmed that the board is in lockstep with the broader UES community, which came together in protest last weekend outside of the center’s 67th Street location. More than 300 people and several local elected officials, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney, state Sen. Liz Krueger, Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Members Ben Kallos and Keith Powers, attended the rally, showing a unified front against what they see as development run amok.
Introduced last October, the project includes a modernization of the Blood Center’s headquarters, 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.
While the community said it would support NYBC if it wanted to build a new headquarters as of right (which NYBC said it cannot afford and has deemed raising the $200 million to fund the project impossible), it is vehemently opposed to the project as it stands. The tower would cast new afternoon shadows on the nearby St. Catherine’s Park and Julia Richman Education Complex, which houses some students with autism and other special needs, as well as the change from residential to commercial zoning the building’s height would require.
In their questioning on these issues, the board continuously returned to one major question they feel NYBC has yet to answer to their satisfaction: Why, if NYBC could build in a lot that is zoned appropriately for its needs and does not cast hours of shadows over a park or school building, would it still choose to build at its current site?
Paul Selver, an attorney representing NYBC on behalf of Kramer Levin, said the answer to this question was layered. But primarily, Selver said a life science hub is most productive and beneficial when it is in close proximity to medical research centers, as the Blood Center currently is on the UES. Other locations, including in East Harlem, Kips Bay and Long Island City were proposed as alternatives, but Selver said even moving a mile away from their longtime partners could be permanently damaging.
“So what would happen is that the relationships that are lost would be virtually impossible to reclaim,” said Selver. “Certainly, at the very minimum, they would be very, very difficult, because you just wouldn’t have the ability, the closeness that you have here.”
Rockefeller, MSK and Weill Cornell did not respond by press time to questions of whether the institutions would end their relationships with NYBC if the center moved away from the UES.
Selver reiterated that there is a significant drop off in “interchange benefits” when one party moves from being within two blocks to within two miles. He said the board could disagree with the value of proximity, but that it is a cornerstone of what NYBC and Longfellow are trying to build.
Former CB8 chair, Alida Camp, who cited UES resident Marty Bell’s recent presentation attempting to undermine NYBC’s proximity claims by showing the center has collaborated with both out-of-state and foreign research institutions, said she found Selver’s argument hard to believe.“I don’t understand how with being less than two miles between Kips Bay and these hospitals or three miles from East Harlem to these hospitals in a city that’s full of public transportation and taxis and cars, that’s not proximate enough, given how [this project] is going to destroy the neighborhood,” said Camp.
The underlying frustration among board members toward NYBC officials seems to stem from the fact that despite an outpouring of opposition to the project, NYBC has yet to make a single revision to their design. In his remarks, Council Member Kallos summed up much of what the board had been saying all evening long.
“I’ve never seen a land use process anywhere in the city of New York where the developer ignored the community to this extent, and just told the community to go F themselves,” said Kallos. “It’s just inappropriate. It’s horrible. And I’ve never seen anything like this. This is not how community-driven planning works. This is how profit-driven planning works.”
Consistently, in response, Selver tried to reassure members on this front. He said it is in ULURP where such compromises are made, and that in his many experiences with the process, he’s never seen a project come out of ULURP the way it came in.
The board members did not find that persuasive.
“I also frankly find that you saying, time and time again, that you’ve never seen a ULURP process go through without being at least slightly altered ... Well, same here, and yet, this has got to be the fifth or sixth time that you’ve come before our community board and it remains unchanged,” said board member Tricia Shimamura.
Member Michelle Birnbaum echoed her colleagues in one cutting line.“You’re asking the community to give up everything so you don’t have to give up anything.”
“I’ve never seen a land use process anywhere in the city of New York where the developer ignored the community to this extent, and just told the community to go F themselves.” Council Member Ben Kallos