Rivera O.K.’s Tech Hub without neighborhood protections

At a July 10 City Council hearing on the “Tech Hub,” members of the public in the audience did nondisruptive “jazz hands” to show approval of comments by former Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who said that neighborhood protections should be put in place as a condition of approval for needed zoning variances for the project. Photo by The Villager

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The Union Square “Tech Hub” is on its way to final approval after two key City Council committees O.K.’d the plan on Thursday.

In a big letdown for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and its supporters, however, the plan for the 21-story tower was passed without assurances that any major rezoning or landmarking protections would be put in place for the surrounding neighborhood.

The project 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 along the Broadway and University Place corridors and strong incentives for including affordable housing in new projects.

City Councilmember Carlina Rivera held the key vote on the Zoning and Franchises Committee since the project is located in her Council District 2, which includes the East Village. She was the only member to speak before the committee voted unanimously to approve a special zoning permit for the project.

Afterward, Andrew Berman, executive director of G.V.S.H.P., said he was extremely disappointed in 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.

He said Rivera did tell him right before the 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 some individual buildings along Broadway for landmarking.

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

While Rivera, in her remarks, pledged to keep working with the administration to ensure the area around the Tech Hub would be protected from overdevelopment, Berman said she lost all of her leverage after her vote on the subcommittee. The Council’s Committee on Land Use promptly also approved the Tech Hub that same day. The full City Council is now slated to vote on 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.

The proposed tech hub on E. 14th St. between Third and Fourth Aves. would rise between two existing N.Y.U. dorms on the former P.C. Richard & Son site.

“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 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, though, is bullish on the project, specifically the digital-skills training center that it would include on three of its floors. She had pushed for the training center to be increased to four floors, but it wasn’t immediately clear if she got her wish. The building would also include a number of floors devoted to start-up tech companies that would have short-term leases.

In her remarks before the 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. Once the Tech Hub was in play, the society lobbied to link it to its hoped-for rezoning.

“As I vote ‘yes’ at the subcommittee hearing,” Rivera said, “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.”

But, again, Berman remained skeptical, saying Rivera now has no leverage left on the issue.

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 protections 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.”

At the end of the day, perhaps it was just too big an ask on freshman Councilmember Rivera’s part to make it a deal breaker to have the Tech Hub’s approval linked to the neighborhood protections — especially for a project that was strongly supported by de Blasio. Or perhaps she didn’t want to risk losing something — the digital skills-training center — that she truly believed would be a very valuable asset to her constituents. Or maybe it was some combination of these.

Whatever the reason, a Rivera spokesperson said the councilmember would not be making any additional comments about her vote on the Tech Hub, at this point, beyond the remarks she gave before the subcommittee’s vote.

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