CB4’s Benfatto Tapped to Head Hudson Yards/Hell’s Kitchen BID

Photo by Eileen Stukane

Photo by Eileen Stukane

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC   |  The Hudson Yards/Hell’s Kitchen Business Improvement District (hudsonyardsnyc.org) is moving forward with its main mission: to open, fund, maintain and operate Hudson Park and Boulevard, according to its new executive director.

Robert J. Benfatto, Jr. spoke with Chelsea Now on Tues., Sept. 2 — his first day at the helm. His background as district manager for Community Board 4 (CB4) has prepared him for the challenges that await the business improvement district (BID).

“The boundaries of the BID were within the district I worked for the last eight years so I know the area very well — the people in it,” said Benfatto.

“The development that’s been going on, it’s not new to me. So I think I can use what I’ve learned going forward.”

The BID is tasked with many responsibilities, but Benfatto says its primary concern is Hudson Park and Boulevard, which will be situated between W. 33rd St. and W. 39th St. between 10th and 11th Aves. Construction has been split into two phases. Within those two phases are blocks. Blocks one, two and three comprise phase one. Blocks four, five and six make up the second phase. The first phase is slated to be mostly complete by January of next year, Benfatto said.

“When the park is ready to be opened, we’re going to be in a maintenance agreement with the City of New York where the BID will take care of it,” he said. “We’ll do the whole thing: we’d maintain it, we’d operate it, we’d put a concession there to raise revenue. And we would continue to advocate — only half of it has been built so far.”

Thus far, the BID has funding for the first four blocks of the park, explained Benfatto.

“There’s a lot that has been done for block five,” he said. “There will probably have to be some rezoning in the area and further development too to raise money.”

The BID worked with CB4 on block four, and one of the goals of the BID will be raising money for blocks five and six.

Another major issue for the BID is the amount of buses in the district, especially along 10th Ave. One of the reasons for the backup of buses, said Benfatto, is the overflow from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which during its busy times can hold only so many buses. If you go to 10th Ave., he says, you’ll sometimes see the buses go all the way down to W. 30th St. in a line, waiting to get into the terminal.

“The Port’s looking at building a second garage, which will hopefully alleviate some of the problems,” Benfatto said.

Another idea being bandied about is the expansion of the 7 train to Secaucus, New Jersey. Instead of buses coming from Jersey to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the buses would stop in Secaucus, and then a commuter would take the 7 train into Manhattan. This would free up more space, said Benfatto, and the extension is an issue that the BID is considering.

Image courtesy of Hudson Yards Development Corporation | Jan. 2014 A 2011 rendering depicts the 34th St. No. 7 subway canopy.

Image courtesy of Hudson Yards Development Corporation | Jan. 2014
A 2011 rendering depicts the 34th St. No. 7 subway canopy.

Once the 7 train stations on the West Side are open, Benfatto said that the neighborhood should be able to handle the influx of riders. Transportation has been an important issue for the community.

“The community likes the 7 train. In fact, they wanted an extra station. They wanted one at 40th and 10th,” he said. An additional station was in the plan, but there was no money for it.

Both the community and CB4 have expressed concern about how Hell’s Kitchen will be “merged in seamlessly within the new portion,” said Benfatto, who emphasized that the alliance’s name includes both Hudson Yards and Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a new neighborhood, he said, and the BID will keep the two parts working together.

“I think that parts that are today known as Hell’s Kitchen will stay as Hell’s Kitchen at least for the foreseeable future,” he said when asked about whether the neighborhood can retain its markers with all the changes and growth that is occurring.

“Hell’s Kitchen has a little more cache now. People used to view it as a very bad neighborhood,” said Benfatto. “But actually now some people want to live in Hell’s Kitchen.”

“The BID is definitely in place to preserve the neighborhood the way it is so all projects moving forward will definitely take in consideration not only people who moved in 30 days ago in the neighborhood, but people who’ve been living there 30 years or more,” said Andrea Bernard, interim board member of Hudson Yards/Hell’s Kitchen BID, in a phone interview.

Right now, the new neighborhood that is Hudson Yards has yet to form. There are plans for large development, Benfatto says, and not only the rail yards.

“Hudson Yards includes more than just the rail yards — it’s the entire area around the park,” he said. “There’s going to be buildings all around the park at some point.”

According to the zoning of the area, one side of the park is commercial, but the other side may include residential buildings.

It will be a mixed-use district. Benfatto said that seems to be the wave of the future throughout the city and that for the most part it has been working. He cited as an example Long Island City, a manufacturing area that has become residential but still has commercial aspects to it.

“People like that mix to a certain extent,” he says, referring to those who live and work within the same area.

There are a number of new residential buildings in the thirties, which abuts the boundary of Hudson Yards and there are early planning stages for new buildings on W. 41st and 11th Ave. and W. 40th and 10th Ave.

The residential buildings that have been built are full, said Benfatto, as people have the drive and motivation to move into the neighborhood.

When asked what will be the challenges for the BID while a new neighborhood is being created, Benfatto said construction, which brings with it noise and disruption.

“Construction sites sometimes are not the most pleasant thing to look at,” he said, and the alliance will try to ameliorate this.

“A huge amount of this one district is under construction so we are trying to take on projects like beautifying the construction site by adding special fencing or allowing the community to take part in telling us what art inspires them,” said Bernard.

The BID may tap local artists to provide their work to place throughout the district to draw eyes away from the construction and direct it toward the beautification of the neighborhood, she said. 

The BID will hire a maintenance group to clean and maintain the trees and plants. It will deal with any horticulture issues and find a place to store the equipment. Money willing, Benfatto said, the BID would help upkeep the area around the park as well.

The budget is currently $1.2 million for the first two years and can then go up to $3 million depending on need. The BID’s budget is dependent on new taxes levied on commercial, residential and mixed-use properties.

“We have to keep it small at first because we need the buildings to be built, the development to happen,” he said.

Despite larger corporations and businesses moving into the neighborhood, Benfatto does not think that small businesses will be crowded out of the area. L’Oreal USA among others have already signed on as Hudson Yards tenants and Related Companies recently announced it has snagged retailer Neiman Marcus.

With the influx of people into the neighborhood, the need for small business will remain. “Small businesses, I think, will thrive as with more people. I mean Ninth Ave. is full of small businesses, not just restaurants, but other stores,” he said.

Nor will affordable housing be displaced by all the new construction.

“Most of the residential housing that’s going to be built is going to have a strong affordable housing component,” said Benfatto. “That’s coming out of city hall.”

Bernard said CB4 has taken charge of the affordable housing issue and has invited major developers to speak. The community has also raised concerns about pedestrian issues and safety. There have been several meetings with the Department of Transportation and NYPD about public safety and enforcement. Another community interest has been public space, said Bernard.

“When we find public space and utilize it, people start going there,” she said. “The Canoe at the corner at of 36th and Ninth, which was not used at all, now has benches and trees. If you build it, they will come.”

When the Hudson Yards was rezoned and a special district was created, said Benfatto, there was a desire for greenery because there were not a lot of parks in the area. Out of several proposals and ideas, and the original environmental study, Hudson Park and Boulevard emerged. The open space would also be inviting to businesses and commercial entities.

Photo by Scott Stiffler The canopy, as it appears today. Located on 34th St. (btw. 10th & 11th Aves.). It’s part of Hudson Park and Boulevard — whose Phase I completion date is Jan. 2015.

Photo by Scott Stiffler
The canopy, as it appears today. Located on 34th St. (btw. 10th & 11th
Aves.). It’s part of Hudson Park and Boulevard — whose Phase I completion
date is Jan. 2015.

While he does not have an office quite yet, Benfatto does have a workspace. When asked how his first day was going, he said, “So far, so good.”

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