A Tale of Two ‘Techs’: Rivera vs. Berman

The proposed Tech Hub on E. 14th St. at Irving Place, between Third and Fourth Aves., would rise between two existing N.Y.U. dorms on the former P.C. Richard & Son site.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | A portion of this article was published on thevillager.com on Fri., Aug. 3, and has been updated as of Fri., Aug. 10, at 4 a.m.: The full City Council approved the Union Square “Tech Hub” project on Wednesday. However, depending on who you talk to — Councilmember Carlina Rivera or preservationist Andrew Berman — it was either a major victory or a huge disappointment.

In a big letdown for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and its supporters, the plan for the 21-story tower was passed — but without assurances that any major rezoning protections would be put in place for the surrounding neighborhood, at least according to its director, Berman.

However, in an extensive interview about the Tech Hub on Thursday, the day after the vote, Rivera told The Villager that she is already promptly moving ahead with an effort to put “zoning protections” into place in the area bounded by Third Ave. and University Place on the east and west and 14th St. and Astor Place on the north and south. She clarified that this is different than a “rezoning” or a “downzoning” per se.

Rivera said the Mayor’s Office, from the outset, had been very clear that a rezoning — which is much more extensive and could even involve a change in allowable uses — was a “nonstarter.” She said she would be releasing a letter to the media on Fri., Aug. 10, that she has sent to the Department of City Planning to initiate that process. The councilmember said Berman was aware of all this, and that she disagrees with “the messaging” of G.V.S.H.P. on this point, feeling the society is mischaracterizing what she sees as a win.

She added that negotiations with the Mayor’s Office on the Tech Hub and her attempts to get further concessions, went “up to the last minute” before the full City Council vote on Wednesday.

Told of Rivera’s letter to City Planning and her claim of having won a commitment for what she called “zoning protections,” Berman was extremely skeptical.

“Both Councilmember Rivera and Council Speaker Corey Johnson have told both me and other interested parties that the only ‘zoning protection’ they got is a commitment from the city to put in place a requirement for a special permit for hotels in this area,” he said. “This is cold comfort, as it would only apply to a portion of the affected area, would only affect one of many types of objectionable development, would not guarantee hotels don’t get built anyway, and at best would not go into effect until many months after this week’s Tech Hub approval, which already increases the development pressure on the area.”

(The Villager will have a follow-up article including a report on Rivera’s letter to City Planning, as well as more from Thursday’s interview with the councilmember in which she explained her vote and discussed the project, plus reaction from G.V.S.H.P. and others. As of Friday, Rivera’s office had not yet provided a copy of the letter, explaining that a few legal points were still being worked through.)

The Tech Hub is set to rise on the city-owned site at 124 E. 14th St., between Third and Fourth Aves., currently home to a vacant two-story building formerly home to P.C. Richard & Son.

G.V.S.H.P.’s zoning plan called for shorter, squatter buildings for any new construction projects along the Broadway and University Place corridors and strong incentives for including affordable housing in new projects.

However, in her remarks before Wednesday’s final vote in the City Council, Rivera said she had accomplished what she set out to do, and that it was, in fact, “the first in a string of victories” to come.

“After eight months of intense negotiations with City Hall, I am satisfied that we are achieving the two most important goals our community needed from this rezoning,” she said. “I am voting yes today for a Tech Hub that will bring true community benefits, tech education and workforce development services that will finally give women, people of color and low-income New Yorkers access to an industry that has unfairly kept them out for far too long.

“And I am of course voting yes with the knowledge that we achieved crucial protections for the neighborhood that I have lived in my entire life and seen change so much over the last 15 years,” the councilmember said. “These protections include key landmarkings, a commencement of establishing a protective zoning measure in neighborhoods south of 14th St. that will regulate commercial development, and further resources and commitments from the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Mayor’s Office that will have a lasting positive impact on the preservation of affordable and historical housing alike.

“I believe these protections for the neighborhood are the first in a string of victories that will allow us to develop sensible zoning for livable streets, establish landmarking of precious historical sites, and ensure the small businesses we cherish prosper.”

In addition, Rivera noted that the final deal includes an upfront contribution from the tech-skills training center’s developer of $200,000 and an ongoing $200,000 annual contribution for 99 years to a scholarship and grant fund that would provide additional support for training, tech “boot camp” and certificate opportunities for trainees; plus, a commitment to set a goal of 25 percent of trainees at the tech-skills center being Council District 2 residents who meet certain criteria such as income threshold, employment status and public housing residency, among other things.

Rivera shaped up to be the key vote last Thursday on the Council’s Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee since the project is located in her District 2, which includes the East Village and part of the Lower East Side. She was the only member of the subcommittee to speak before it voted unanimously to approve a special zoning permit for the project.

Councilmember Carlina Rivera explained her vote on the Tech Hub during an interview with The Villager the day after the vote. Photo by The Villager

After last Thursday’s vote, G.V.S.H.P.’s Berman said he was extremely disappointed at the outcome. He said his understanding had always been that Rivera would vote no on the Tech Hub unless the de Blasio administration agreed to the accompanying neighborhood protections that the society had been requesting.

He said Rivera did tell him right before last week’s vote that the city had agreed to a couple of changes, including requiring a special permit to build hotels on Third and Fourth Aves. in the East Village area — “an extra hoop to jump through” for developers, Berman shrugged — and committing to considering seven buildings along Broadway for designation as individual landmarks.

“It’s really a fraction of a fraction of what we were asking for,” Berman said.

While Rivera, in her remarks last Thursday, pledged to keep working with the administration to ensure that the area around the Tech Hub would be protected from overdevelopment, Berman said she lost all her pull after her vote on the subcommittee. The Council’s Committee on Land Use promptly also approved the Tech Hub that same day, before the full City Council ultimately went on to approve the project on Wed., Aug. 8.

“We all know that once her vote has been cast, she loses all her leverage and it’s wishful thinking that anything more will be granted by the administration,” Berman said.

“Carlina did pledge when she was running [for City Council last year], in writing, that she would not vote for the Tech Hub without the neighborhood protections,” Berman said. “And she told me verbally over the weekend [before the subcommittee vote] that she wouldn’t vote for it without them. Disappointingly, that’s exactly what she did. We’re disappointed.

“The Tech Hub is definitely going to accelerate the development problems in the West Village and East Village,” the preservationist predicted. “The very, very modest mitigations being offered are not going to be sufficient to halt the transformation of these neighborhoods into Midtown South and Silicon Alley. … I took her at her word,” Berman said of Rivera, “and I have to say, I’m disappointed.

“We have a lame-duck mayor who doesn’t care about these issues and is even hostile to them. It was not as important to Carlina as we would have hoped.”

The councilmember, however, is bullish on the project, specifically the digital-skills training center that it would include on three of its floors. During the negotiations, she had pushed for the training center to be increased to four floors, but ultimately did not get it.

Civic Hall, a group led by tech entrepreneur Andrew Rasiej, will be involved in running the training center, along with three other floors that will include collaborative work space, event space, incubator space, community rooms and classrooms. These six floors will act as one unit, with their own elevator banks, separate connecting stairs and architectural unity throughout, and will be operated by “workforce partners,” including Per Scholas, Mouse and City University of New York, in addition to Civic Hall.

The building would also include five floors devoted to start-up tech companies with short-term leases, plus eight floors of traditional office space.

A diagram showing the breakdown of uses by floor in the planned Tech Hub building on E. 14th St. A rezoning that was approved by the City Council on Wed., Aug. 8, allowed the project to be larger than would normally have been allowed.

In her remarks before the subcommittee vote, Rivera said, “This building could provide a variety of amenities, over 1,400 jobs and provide benefits to our communities from University Place to Avenue D.

“These are the streets where I grew up,” she said, “and nothing means more to me than finding a balance that preserves, protects and brings opportunity to every corner of District 2.”

She thanked concerned community members for their months of working with her on the issue, and for all the phone calls and letters she had gotten from locals anxious about the project’s impact on the neighborhood.

G.V.S.H.P. has been pushing for the rezoning of the University Place and Broadway corridors for four years — even before the Tech Hub plan was hatched. In fact, spurring the initiative was the demolition of the Bowlmor building on University for a new residential tower — since built — by Harry Macklowe. Once the Tech Hub project came into the picture, the society lobbied to try to link it to its hoped-for rezoning.

Preservationist Andrew Berman says the Tech Hub will ratchet up development, especially commercial development, in the area south of 14th St., transforming it into Silicon Alley and effectively making it an extension of what realtors term Midtown South.

Rivera said last week that she hoped to get more concessions from City Hall in the days before the final vote.

“As I vote yes at the subcommittee hearing,” Rivera said last week, “I want to make it clear that I am doing this so I can continue negotiating with the Mayor’s Office toward a possibility of reaching a deal that will satisfy all impacted communities before next week’s stated meeting,” she said, referring to the full Council vote on Aug. 8.

“Over the next few days, I look forward to negotiating and to getting to the point where I and stakeholders are satisfied.

“The fight to keep history is important, and our vision for the neighborhood includes character and vibrancy for all generations to come,” she added. “I will not stop working until we reach a deal that provides us with a comprehensive, holistic approach to both access to technology education and protections of our vibrant community. I really think that we can come to a place where we can find a balance and we can have projects and protections that we are proud of.”

After this week’s full Council vote, however, Berman said he saw no change from whatever limited protections Rivera had secured as of last Thursday.

In response to a question by The Villager about former Councilmember Rosie Mendez’s stance on the Tech Hub, Berman noted that Mendez, Rivera’s predecessor in the Council, had vowed not to approve the Tech Hub unless community safeguards like the ones the society was asking for were put in place.

“Rosie made a very public statement when she was councilmember that she wouldn’t vote for the Tech Hub without protections,” Berman said. “My experience with Rosie was that she was always good to her word.”

In an e-mailed statement to her constituents after Wednesday’s vote, Rivera acknowledged that City Hall had not been a willing partner in trying to shield the surrounding community from overdevelopment.

“When it came to neighborhood protections,” she said, “it seemed that conversations between my team and the city were stalled from the beginning, even as we negotiated back and forth over our many proposals with support from the Council’s Land Use staff and preservationist partners. There were many times we said no to City Hall despite knowing what was at stake.

“We were frequently reminded by the city that sweeping changes to neighboring areas are not typically included for the rezoning of a single property such as this. But we refused to give up and continued to win commitments from the city for a variety of protections and an ongoing dialogue of how to preserve the neighborhood.

“In the end,” she said, “I recognized that walking away would not only leave our community without a top-flight tech training center, but also without a single neighborhood protection. Voting no meant we would still get a tall, glass office building and the same threats of overdevelopment.”

However, again, Berman’s main takeaway was that he saw no change from last Thursday.

“It’s entirely inaccurate to claim that these very meager measures that are part of this deal even approach the kind of protections that we were talking about, and that she pledged to condition her vote upon,” Berman said. “These couple of measures cover a fraction of the affected area and a fraction of the kinds of development that it’s facing. So to pretend that it’s anything other than a very small response to a huge problem is inaccurate, to say the least.”

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