The City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is planning to redevelop a publicly owned site in Lower Manhattan, and has pledged to include in the project benefits such as affordable housing and a pre-kindergarten facility. But a close examination of EDC’s approach indicates that both of these bonuses may accrue to communities far removed from the Civic Center neighborhood in which the property is located.
The parcel EDC plans to monetize is 137 Centre Street, located on the northwest corner of the intersection with White Street. Once called the Excelsior Building, the 1911 structure originally housed private offices, but now hosts Department of Sanitation and NYPD within its nine stories. The building occupies a parcel slightly more than 5,000 square feet in size, but adjoins two other structures: a twin building at 139 Centre Street (designed by the same architects and completed in the same year as 137 Centre), and a landmarked former firehouse in Lafayette Street (which now houses the Downtown Community Television studios). Air rights from these adjacent structures, combined with unused development rights from the existing building, could allow for a new structure of more than 60 stories at 137 Centre.
At Tuesday night’s monthly meeting of Community Board 1 (CB1), chair Anthony Notaro said, “we met with EDC, and we asked about what projects were going on. We learned about two or three we didn’t know about, one of which is 137 Centre Street.”
This may have been a reference to what some community leaders have described as a secretive approach to development on the part of EDC, the City agency that negotiates strategic partnerships designed to harness private-sector resources to public projects, and thus foster economic growth. For example, local leaders and elected officials representing Lower Manhattan have for several years bitterly criticized EDC’s management of the proposed redevelopment of the South Street Seaport. These stakeholders have repeatedly decried EDC’s piecemeal release of information that has unveiled small slivers of the overall project months or years apart, in a manner that is sometimes perceived as intended to prevent concerned residents from forming a comprehensive view of the agency’s larger plan for the Seaport project.
Discussing the plan for 137 Centre Street, Mr. Notaro continued, “we have an opportunity to get affordable housing,” in the planned redevelopment, “but it will be a fight, because they want to put that housing outside of the district.”
EDC’s 2015 announcement that it would consider proposals from developers interested in 137 Centre Street said the agency was seeking plans for, “a thriving mixed-use, mixed-income development with preference for proposals that include an affordable housing program consistent with the City’s plan, Housing New York, and which contributes to the City’s goal of fostering economically diverse neighborhoods.” This announcement said nothing about these units being located outside of Lower Manhattan. Such a revelation might have sparked opposition to the redevelopment of 137 Centre Street, because the shortage of affordable housing units in Lower Manhattan has forced many middle class families to leave the community in recent years, as rents and sale prices for condominiums have soared ever higher. This crisis has been made more acute by a sharp reduction in the number of existing affordable apartments in Lower Manhattan, as developments once set aside for middle-income residents (such as Southbridge Towers, and Independence Plaza) have converted to market-rate prices. And for many of the development projects that have transformed the Lower Manhattan landscape in the last decade, developers accepted tax benefits in exchange for creating affordable housing, but then opted to build those units elsewhere — often as far away as the Bronx.
EDC’s 2015 invitation to developers also said the agency, “particularly seeks proposals that incorporate needed services or neighborhood amenities, such as space dedicated to a Universal Pre-Kindergarten facility,” adding that bids from developers should, “respond to the needs of the community and provide needed services or neighborhood amenities, such as community or cultural facilities.”
At Tuesday’s CB1 meeting, Tricia Joyce, chair of that panel’s Youth and Education Committee, noted that, “we do not need the pre-kindergarten seats in this community district; we have vacancies in pre-kindergarten seats.” This would seem to indicate that, even if the proposed development at 137 Centre Street includes an early childhood education facility, it will likely serve children who live outside Lower Manhattan, and who will have to be transported in.
It is not clear what “community or culture facilities” (if any) the development at 137 Centre Street may include. But in addition to affordable housing, Lower Manhattan elected officials and community leaders have long pushed for other forms of civic infrastructure, such as new schools, athletic facilities (because most new schools built in Lower Manhattan do not have a gymnasium), community centers, and senior centers.
The sale of public assets in Lower Manhattan (without any commensurate local benefit being allocated to the community) has ample precedent. In 2012, the City began negotiations to sell two landmarked buildings (one at 346 Broadway; the other at 49-51 Chambers Street) to developers. At the time, local elected officials predicted the total price would run to hundreds of millions of dollars, and threatened to veto the deal unless the City agreed to compensate the Downtown community by providing one or more of the amenities that local leaders have been demanding. The following year, the Bloomberg administration finalized a deal to sell both properties for a combined price of $249 million.
In exchange, local residents did not get a new school, athletic complex, community center, or affordable housing. Instead, the community was promised a 16,000-square-foot, “digital arts and media space dedicated to public use,” to be located on the ground floor of 346 Broadway. By January of this year, however, the developers who bought the building had quietly shrunk the planned amenity to 7,210 square feet, and moved its location to the building’s basement. It still has yet to open.
Unlike 346 Broadway, the Excelsior Building at 137 Centre street in not landmarked, which means that it can be demolished as-of-right by whoever purchases it. The structure was designed by the architectural firm of Schwartz and Gross, who also created eight of the buildings on Central Park West that were designated “contributing properties” when the Central Park West Historic District was designated in the 1980s — including 55 Central Park West, now affectionately known as the “Ghostbusters Building.”