Testimony of NYS Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh Before Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer Regarding the Former Con Edison First Avenue Properties
My name is Brian Kavanagh and I represent the 74th Assembly District in the New York State Legislature. The District includes parts of the Lower East Side, Union Square, Gramercy, Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, Waterside Plaza, Kips Bay, Murray Hill, and Tudor City – and, of particular relevance tonight – the properties on First Avenue between East 35th and East 41st Street that are the subject of this hearing, as well as all of the areas immediately adjacent to the sites.
First, I would like to applaud the many community organizations and individuals who have worked so hard to review and critique the East River Realty Corporation’s proposal, to articulate many well-thought-out alternatives to the developer’s vision, to get the word out to community residents about what’s been proposed and how to participate in the public review process, and of course for coming out rain or shine to hearings like this one to express their concern for the future of our community. In this regard, I would particularly like to acknowledge Community Board 6 and the East Midtown Coalition for Sensible Development for their extraordinary commitment to making sure that our community is a full participant in this process and for making so many cogent arguments about the needs of current residents of our community and New York as a whole – and also the long-term implications of such an enormous proposed development in the heart of our city.
Second, I would also like to commend you, Borough President Stringer, and your wonderful staff, for the great strides you’ve made in reinvigorating community boards throughout the borough and supporting their role as true participants in planning for the future of our neighborhoods.
And, on a final preliminary note, I would like to thank my fellow East Side elected officials, who began working diligently on the issues surrounding this project long before I took my seat in the legislature and who have proceeded with a great spirit of collaboration. And of course a lot of the credit goes to our respective staffs, who have arranged the meetings, drafted the joint correspondence, and helped keep all of us up to speed and working for the common good of the East Side community that we all represent.
As you will hear again and again tonight, the development of the Con Edison Waterside site is a pivotal event for our community and for our city. Stretching all the way from 35th to 41st Street, the site comprises the largest plot of developable land on the East Side of Manhattan and its development will not only have a massive impact on the life of our community – its impact will ripple throughout the city.
New Yorkers understand that change is inevitable in our communities and those of us who are concerned about ERRC’s plans for these sites are not merely standing up for the status quo. Indeed, this community has put forth bold plans of its own for redeveloping the area. However, the purpose of the Zoning Resolution is to ensure that the interests of those who wish to build in our city are balanced against the interests of other property owners, community residents, and the general public. The proposed development before you today would require changes to the zoning for the sites that do not strike an appropriate balance among these interests. So the proposal should be rejected unless ERRC makes fundamental changes. I would like to highlight several such changes that I think are essential.
First, the buildings proposed by ERRC are simply too tall and the zoning changes that would permit buildings as high as 69 stories should be rejected. I’m sure others who will speak tonight will go into the specifics details of C1-9 versus C5-2 zoning and the other technical aspects of what should and should not be permitted on the sites. I will simply say that I think the paramount concern with respect to the decision regarding the appropriate height for these sites should be the terrible effect on our very limited park space that the shadows of the proposed buildings would present – in particular the effect on Tudor City Greens and St. Vartan Park.
Second, the proposed zoning changes should be rejected unless the developer provides a plan that would genuinely mitigate the traffic congestion that will otherwise be caused by the project. The Mayor and the State Legislature – and now the traffic mitigation commission that we created by statute this past July – have rightly recognized that traffic congestion in Manhattan’s central business district has a serious deleterious effect on our quality of life, our air quality, and on the vibrancy of our economy. In response, we have seen ambitious plans to reduce the need for people to drive into Manhattan for work and increase the availability of alternative modes of transportation. Unfortunately, the ERRC proposals all but ignore this growing awareness – and if this project is approved as the developer currently envisions it, we could be simply undoing any of the other constructive steps we might otherwise take to mitigate traffic congestion and render the problem of clogged streets even more intractable than it is today.
In preparation for the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, 88 intersections were analyzed to determine the impact of the project on traffic congestion in the morning and evening rush hours, as well as in midday. The findings of this analysis were disturbing. According to the developer’s own analysis, the project would have significant adverse impacts on 64 of these intersections in the morning and 57 in the evening. Some who have reviewed the EIS have suggested that these figures underestimate the traffic that the project will generate, but let’s just take the developer’s analysis at face value for a moment. First of all, it’s worth noting that the EIS concludes that nothing at all can be done about the adverse impact on about a dozen of the intersections – that whatever we do, if we allow this project to go forward as proposed, we will be stuck indefinitely with congested intersections. With respect to the other intersections, the EIS suggests that the additional congestion the project would cause could be mitigated. The methods for mitigating the congestion would be stricter enforcement of parking and traffic laws already on the books, new traffic signals and changing the timing of some signals, and channeling traffic differently in some places. All of these are steps that the city would have to take at public expense and – at minimum – we should consider whether the developer should be asked to bear a greater share of the cost of these changes.
But the more basic problem with the developer’s proposal is this. To the extent that these steps are feasible ways of reducing traffic congestion, we ought to be taking them with or without the project. The so-called mitigation that the developer proposes would simply lock in the congested status quo that we see every day on First and Second Avenues, on the FDR, and on the East River crossings.
Before this project is approved, the developer should be required to either dramatically scale it back or to take responsibility for proposing real steps to mitigate increased traffic congestion. These could include shuttle service to and from Grand Central and perhaps other points as well, but something more substantial than that would probably be necessary.
Even with such steps to mitigate congestion, it is highly questionable whether the public interest would be well served by zoning changes that would allow for office space – particularly 1.1 million square feet of office space. Arguably adding new office space to this site – isolated from public transportation as it is – simply flies in the face of our new emphasis on sustainability and our efforts to address the enormous negative impact of the cumulative effect of planning decisions that have brought more and more commuters to Manhattan from outside the borough. New housing within Manhattan has the potential to reduce rather than increase the need for people to commute into the borough. New office space undoubtedly would have the opposite effect. For every person working in the new offices who live in Manhattan there will be several making the trek from Queens, Westchester, or elsewhere in the metropolitan area. Unless the developer is prepared to present a reasonable explanation for how all these people will get to First Avenue in a way that does not seriously set back our efforts to get traffic congestion under control, I believe that the zoning changes that would allow the office space on the site should be rejected.
Finally, I would like to comment on the developer’s proposal for affordable housing. I joined some of my colleagues last week in stating that I welcome the developer’s recognition that affordable housing needs to be included in the plan. But we should consider the developer’s proposal to provide a total of 620 affordable units out of the proposed 4,200 units – or about 15 percent of the total – to be a starting point for negotiations, but not sufficient to justify the massive zoning changes the developer seeks. We are all too familiar with the crisis in housing affordability that we face throughout the city. As we’ve seen with other large-scale developments in recent years, projects like this one can still be highly profitable while making a real contribution to the availability of housing not only for the very wealthy but for ordinary working families as well.