Inclusive growth, not political horse-trading

A design rendering of the entryway of the planned Tech Hub on E. 14th St. between Third and Fourth Aves. The project has nothing to do with other construction projects south of Union Square, the writer says.

BY WILLIAM THOMAS | Two weeks ago, the City Council took a particularly tough vote to replace the shuttered P.C. Richard & Son on E. 14th St. with the Union Square Tech Hub, a space for nonprofits and start-up businesses to train working-class New Yorkers for jobs in the technology sector. It was a tough vote not because anyone on the Council is opposed to helping prepare New Yorkers for better-paying jobs, but because lobbyists representing wealthy nearby residents attempted to hijack the proceedings, and almost succeeded.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation — which bills itself as a kind of spiritual successor to Jane Jacobs, despite having nearly $2 million in the bank and a clear interest in “enhancing property values in our city” — saw the Tech Hub as an opportunity for a backroom deal. Knowing that the Hub was a high priority of city government, G.V.S.H.P. demanded that the local councilmember, Carlina Rivera, and the Council only approve the Hub if the mayor also agreed to downzone a wealthy portion of the neighborhood unrelated to the project.

Thankfully, the Council didn’t succumb to this kind of pressure and let the Hub vote proceed on the merits. (The project was approved unanimously.) This has triggered something of a hysterical reaction from Andrew Berman, executive director of G.V.S.H.P. and its registered lobbyist. Berman published a talking point here last Thursday (“No spin, just facts: Rivera’s ‘Tech Hub’ flop”) claiming to counter “misinformation promulgated about the Council vote” with “some cold hard facts” and calling Councilmember Rivera a sell-out for not going along with his scheme.

It’s understandable he would be upset — it’s a lobbyist’s job to spin for their clients, after all. Nonetheless, as a board member of Open New York, a pro-housing, all-volunteer advocacy group, I took issue with the gross mischaracterization that Berman’s efforts had anything to do with promoting affordable housing, and felt compelled to respond.

So, courtesy of Open New York, I would like to offer a few “cold hard facts” of my own:

Was it irresponsible to risk the Tech Hub for an unrelated downzoning? Yes.

Clearly, G.V.S.H.P. doesn’t care about risking 1,400 middle-class jobs and would rather leave a storefront empty for years if it helped further its narrow agenda. If Councilmember Rivera had voted against the Hub, the mayor could have decided to build something else that would provide fewer benefits — after all, the city can already lease or sell the site for any use so long as it complies with current zoning.

The City Planning Commission, the local community board and now the City Council all considered whether the benefits of the Tech Hub would be weakened by the negative consequences of a downzoning — consequences that you will never hear G.V.S.H.P. admit to — and decided the Hub should move forward without them.

Negative consequences? I thought these zoning changes were common-sense. No, they were selfish.

If these changes were so “common-sense” — if the case for them was so obvious it didn’t need to be explained — G.V.S.H.P. wouldn’t have needed to hold the Tech Hub hostage in the first place. The society went that route politically because it knew a downzoning would actively harm the surrounding neighborhoods.

The affluent people who would otherwise seek to live in Greenwich Village condos wouldn’t just disappear if the downzoning went through. Instead, they would look elsewhere, spreading out into Alphabet City and the Lower East Side, driving up rents and causing displacement, while keeping the Village a rarefied preserve for the fortunate few living there now. The only people who benefit from something like this are longtime homeowners who have profited off Greenwich Village’s property boom — and it is their interests, not “neighborhood character,” “sustainable affordability” or even historic preservation, in which G.V.S.H.P. is truly invested.

But won’t building the Tech Hub without zoning changes endanger Greenwich Village? Of course not. 

The Tech Hub has nothing to do with other construction projects south of Union Square. G.V.S.H.P. was pushing this downzoning well before the Tech Hub, and will continue to do so well after it’s finished. It is telling, however, that Berman and G.V.S.H.P. seem to view the landmarking process as a tool to prevent development regardless of historical significance.

Weren’t locals asking for the zoning changes that were left out of the deal? No. 

Few have met the final deal with the venom of G.V.S.H.P. Community Board 3 voted in February to approve the Hub without any zoning conditions attached, and many neighborhood residents showed up to support the project (I was one of them.) This was a political mugging, and I’m glad it failed.

But won’t the Tech Hub be wildly out of scale with the neighborhood? No.

It will only be the third-tallest building on the block. Chill.

But what about affordable housing? The G.V.S.H.P. plan was a smoke screen.

This is where it gets ugly, and why Berman’s disingenuousness is so frustrating. Berman claims his group’s plan required “the addition or reinforcement of incentives for including or preserving affordable housing as part of any new development,” but then tacked on a bunch of new regulations that would ensure the affordable housing never got built. The proposal on G.V.S.H.P.’s Web site gives examples of recent developments that could have included optional affordable housing under its plan, then acknowledges right underneath this, that under its plan those buildings likely never would be built at all.

It was a smoke screen. And the worst part is New York City has a law on the books passed two years ago to provide mandatory affordable housing in new buildings. If Berman really cared about keeping the Village a mixed-income neighborhood, he would be proposing new zoning changes to take advantage of that law. The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing a.k.a. M.I.H. amendment was added to the city’s zoning resolution in 2016. The idea is that a neighborhood could have its zoning changed to allow for more residential space on each lot — making more efficient use of New York City’s scarce and expensive buildable land — and then developers would be required to use the money they save to include a mix of rent-restricted apartments for people at different income levels on top of the market-rate ones.

But the key is the M.I.H. law only applies when the permitted residential floor area goes up. The affordable housing has to actually go somewhere — after all, otherwise it only exists on paper. Berman’s plan was to use an incoherent mix of commercial floor-area reductions, height limits and bonuses that would give developers the option of adding affordable housing but nowhere to put it, knowing this would kill future projects and give him political cover to blame developers — all while his donors’ property values would continue to skyrocket.

So should Councilmember Rivera be lambasted for selling her district short? No.

Rivera clearly attempted to deliver a deal that satisfied all parties, but she and her colleagues were negotiating with a man — Berman — arguing in bad faith. I suspect most East Villagers and Lower East Siders would agree that she made the best call for the neighborhood.

I love the East Village. It’s a one-of-a-kind mix of culture and history and people of different backgrounds. I’m glad it’s held on to so much of its energy and in-your-face personality, and I’m extremely thankful that it was never bulldozed for an expressway. But the neighborhood is turning from a preservationist’s dream into a renter’s nightmare.

The zoning and landmarking tools inspired by ’60s-era fights are being abused by people who bought homes when they were cheap and now want to block anyone new from moving here — unless, of course, they pay up.

The Village is an in-demand neighborhood, close to the best jobs, the best schools, the best transit and the best cultural institutions. It is also being strangled by a thicket of historic districts and development restrictions that ensure nobody who isn’t rich can ever move here again. Instead, newcomers and young families are being pushed into the Lower East Side, or Brooklyn, or the Bronx, continuing a cascading cycle of displacement and gentrification that leaves our city worse off for everyone except rich neighborhood property owners and their lobbyists.

We have to stop privileging the opinions of housing-secure millionaires and start asking how we can tear down the legal barriers to equitable and affordable growth; how we can build new housing for everyone alongside the historic buildings we care for; and how we can make room for the types of people who make the Village so eclectic and vibrant rather than pushing them out.

If you agree, you should support projects like the Tech Hub and resist the temptation to say no to every new building that gets proposed. And maybe take a minute to call your councilmember and thank them for not selling out. You can reach Carlina Rivera at 212-677-1077.

Thomas is an East Village resident and a board member, Open New York, an independent, pro-housing advocacy group. On Twitter, @OpenNYForAll

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