Testimony of NYS Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh Before the City Planning Commission Regarding the East River Realty Corp., Inc.’s ULURP Applications for the Former Con Edison First Avenue Properties
December 5, 2007
My name is Brian Kavanagh and I represent the 74th Assembly District, which includes 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. Thank you Chair Amanda Burden and members of the Commission for the opportunity to testify today. As you will hear again and again today, the proposed redevelopment of the former Con Edison First Avenue properties would be a pivotal event for our community and for our city. Approval of the zoning changes, special permits, and certifications that East River Realty seeks for these properties would represent public endorsement of a project whose scale and design would represent profound changes to the cityscape and would have an enormous impact on our community. Before I get into the specifics of the project, I would like to commend Community Board 6 and the many community organizations and individuals who began many years ago to explore the implications of redeveloping these properties, who have taken a positive view of the possibilities and embraced the notion that very substantial redevelopment is desirable, and who have worked so hard to articulate alternatives to the developer’s vision. 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 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 density of the proposed development should be reduced. This is particularly true on the northernmost portion of the project, where the density proposed by the developer is, in effect, artificially inflated by the fact that East 39th and East 40th Streets were de-mapped many years ago to accommodate Con Edison’s Waterside plant. Our community, which is already overburdened in ways that are amply documented even in the developer’s own environmental impact analysis, simply cannot absorb the density currently proposed. Second, the buildings proposed by ERRC are too tall for these sites, and the zoning changes that would permit buildings as high as 69 stories should be rejected. I’m sure others who will speak today will go into the specifics of C1-9 versus C5-2 and C4-6 zoning and the other technical aspects of what should and should not be permitted on the sites. I will simply emphasize my concern that the heights should be reduced to avoid the terrible adverse effect that the developer acknowledges the shadows of the current proposed buildings would have on our very limited park space – in particular the effects on Tudor City Greens and St. Vartan Park. Third, the proposed zoning changes should be rejected unless the developer provides a plan that would genuinely mitigate the traffic congestion that the project would otherwise cause. 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 our economy. In response, we have seen ambitious plans to reduce the need for people to drive into Manhattan for work and to increase the availability of alternative modes of transportation. And we have seen a commendable effort to ensure that new development is matched with public 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 were to allow this project to go forward as proposed, we would 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 partly or wholly. 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 this 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 the Commission approves the changes necessary for this project to go forward, the developer should be required either to significantly scale it back or to take responsibility for proposing real steps to mitigate increased traffic congestion. Fourth, 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 the tremendous amount of office space proposed – 1.1 million square feet. 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 cumulative impact of planning decisions that have brought more and more commuters to Manhattan from outside the borough without adequate provision for public mass transit. New housing on these sites 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 lives 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 feasible options for all these people to get to First Avenue every morning in rush hour in a way that does not seriously set back our efforts to get traffic congestion under control, the proposed office space – and the related parking space – should be rejected. Finally, I would like to comment on the ERRC’s proposal for affordable housing. The developer has recognized that some affordable housing should be provided in exchange for the kind of density proposed for the sites. 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. Again, thank you for the opportunity to testify, and good luck in your deliberations.