Tech-tock

The clock is ticking on the ULURP review for the Tech Hub.

The city’s plan to plan to build a “Tech Hub” tower at the current P.C. Richard & Son retail site, on E. 14th St. between Third and Fourth Aves., coupled with the community’s demand for a rezoning to protect the neighborhood from a wave of similar developments is one of the biggest challenges facing new Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who is now entering just her third month in office.

The city recently certified the Tech Hub plan — kicking off the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) — but without any mention of the rezoning. We’re told the ULURP could be decided as soon as June or July.

Without a rezoning for University Place, Broadway and Third and Fourth Aves., we’re going to be seeing more of these going up: the new residential tower rising on the site of the former Bowlmor Lanes building on University Place. Photo by The Villager

The loudest voice advocating for linking the two issues is the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The society has been adamant that for the City Council to grant the needed approvals for the Tech Hub project, it must be agreed to rezone and / or landmark the area between Union Square and Astor Place, roughly between Broadway and University Place. Both Community Boards 2 and 3 are on record strongly supporting the rezoning. G.V.S.H.P. also wants to close a loophole allowing new large hotels and office buildings on Third and Fourth Aves., just east of the rezoning area.

In short, there’s been an established tech presence in the Union Square area for sometime now. More recently, IBM moved into the new building at 51 Astor Place a.k.a. the “Death Star,” at Fourth Ave. and Astor Place. Now, the blocks in between these two points are increasingly filling up with tech businesses, and pressure is mounting to construct bigger, flashier, newer buildings to accommodate them.

This is not some vague, alarmist notion. In fact, the area south of Union Square is now been branded by realtors as part of the “Midtown South” commercial district. Right now, at least four new large development projects or vertical additions are in the works along Broadway alone.

G.V.S.H.P. first pushed a rezoning for this area a couple of years ago as developer Billy Macklowe was already demolishing the Bowlmor Lanes building on University Place, but the city rejected the proposal.

However, the Tech Hub needs City Council approval because, among other things, it would be larger than current zoning allows. That’s leverage that can be used to protect this core Village area.

Rivera’s predecessor, Rosie Mendez — who was term-limited at the end of last year — was clear in her language: “No Tech Hub without a rezoning.”

Rivera’s statements on the Tech Hub seemingly have been a bit more nuanced. First, and to her credit, she is a big supporter of the idea of the Tech Hub sporting a “workforce center” / “digital-skills training center” that would benefit her Council District 2 constituents. The city has pledged the Tech Hub would include this type of facility, while the rest of the building would be commercial office space, presumably mainly for tech startups and the like.

As Rivera has stressed, she wants to ensure that the youth she sees walking on Avenues C and D and on the Lower East Side “are in that building,” where they could build bright futures. She also hopes the workforce center would be a place where young women, in particular, would be encouraged to learn coding and similar skills in this currently male-dominated industry.

Absolutely, the city must be held to its commitment to create a thriving workforce center. But a ripple effect of megadevelopment must also be blocked.

At a recent meet-and-greet co-sponsored by G.V.S.H.P. and the Third St. Music School, Rivera described the Tech Hub approval and the hoped-for rezoning process as moving along “parallel tracks.” That’s a little different than saying the two are inextricably linked. Similarly, in two recent interviews with The Villager, when queried on the rezoning, Rivera chose her words carefully, saying she did not feel it would come to an all-or-nothing showdown.

But G.V.S.H.P.’s director, Andrew Berman, says they are confident Rivera is on it, and that, in the end, the main thing is not the means one employs, but achieving the desired results. Also, perhaps Rivera is intentionally taking a less confrontational approach with City Hall.

So far, Rivera has stressed that she is going to try to get more affordable housing built in the area, plus fight to “protect” the area’s “character.” But the “R” word, “rezoning” — actually saying it, and advocating for it — is critical.

She also has said she would like to see New York University develop elsewhere — in other neighborhoods that could use a boost. Yet, a prod like rezoning is needed to push N.Y.U. and other developers to build their projects other places.

Clarifying her position, Rivera recently sent us this statement: “As we continue our conversations and negotiations with all stakeholders to ensure that we receive real public benefits for the Tech Hub, I am also fighting — as I have since my first day in office — to bring the necessary zoning protections that reflect the residential character of these neighborhoods and incentivize the right kind of development. I have always stood up to hyperdevelopment, seeing my home district change dramatically over the years. And I will always prioritize the preservation and expansion of our affordable housing stock that keeps our communities diverse, balanced and reflective of their history.”

That sounds good to us. Getting the rezoning, no doubt, would be a heavy lift, especially for a brand-new councilmember, but it’s essential for preserving what’s left of this community. And there’s no time to waste: The ULURP clock is ticking.

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