Planning Ahead

Planning Ahead

When the real-estate industry went into deep freeze, word had it that developers would use their recessionary downtime to get planning approvals in line for the uptick to come. And sure enough, New York’s City Planning Commission had a marathon day yesterday, approving the Related Companies’ Hudson Yards project and Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment, the rezoning of the Broadway Triangle in Brooklyn, new approvals for Jean Nouvel’s MoMA tower, and—the biggest surprise of the bunch—the announcement that the city was moving ahead on acquisition of the final stretch of the High Line.

The High Line news came just after commission chair Amanda Burden voted in favor of the re-rezoning of the western portion of the Hudson Yards, which had been designated for a stadium in 2005 as part of the city’s Olympic bid. Burden perked up noticeably when she made the announcement, declaring, “The vision of the High Line will not be realized until it extends all the way from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street. That’s why I’m pleased to announce that the city is preparing an application to acquire the final piece of the High Line.”

Burden added that she expects the process to be completed by the end of the year, at which point it will enter the public review process. The continuation of the elevated park, the first phase of which opened to great fanfare earlier this year, has been an open question throughout the Hudson Yards development process. While commensurate open space was required, some developers bidding on the project wanted to replace the High Line with a new park north of 30th Street, arguing its preservation would make building the deck over the rail yards more difficult.

Related, which took over the project after Tishman Speyer backed out last year, was ambivalent about including the High Line in its plans. The developer did seem to warm to the idea as the commission increasingly indicated that was the direction it was leaning, working language supportive of preservation into the rezoning in September. Until today’s announcement, though, nothing was assured.

Peter Mullan, vice president for planning and design for Friends of the High Line, said after the announcement that he was excited by the news, but more work remains. “This does not guarantee preservation, but it’s the beginning of the process to ensure preservation and the most significant and concrete step in the process,” Mullan said.

The city must now come to an agreement with CSX, the national railroad operator, to purchase the final stretch of track. No previous deal had been made because the tracks would have been demolished under the stadium plan, and then the city was unsure what action the developers would take.

As for Related’s massive project abutting the High Line, the commission approved changes to the 2005 rezoning, replacing the stadium with one commercial and seven residential towers surrounded by acres of open space, by a vote of 12-1. This will be a part of the completed Hudson Yards, which also includes a parcel east of 11th Avenue that was rezoned in 2005 for commercial and residential use.

The commission made some changes to the Related plan for the western yards that was certified in May, following criticism from the local community board and the borough president. In further deference to the High Line, one tower at the project’s southwest corner that would have straddled the elevated park has been pushed back and its height reduced, though it still overhangs the tracks by 50 feet (the Standard rises 30 feet above).

Changes were also made to the open space, which had been described as “too Bryant Park” by the board. Now, it will be more tightly integrated with the surrounding buildings, along with more seating and other minor changes. Burden also announced the assent of the School Construction Authority to develop a new primary school within the western development. Related could not be reached for comment about these changes.

“They heard everything we said,” Lee Compton, former chair of Community Board 4, told AN after the vote. “They did not agree with everything, though, and we’re going to continue to fight for them.”

The major sticking point, and the reason for the one dissenting vote, is affordable housing. “This project will contribute a number of important, positive aspects to the borough,” commissioner Karen Philips said. “But I am concerned by the lack of onsite affordable housing.” Related has pointed out that 600 units will be created off-site, but Compton said that those were promised during the 2005 rezoning. “To take credit for them would be double dipping,” he said. The community hopes to sway the City Council to require the developer to include more affordable housing, ideally within the site, when the council votes on the project in the next 50 days.

Things did not go as smoothly for Related’s Kingsbridge Armory, an old military hall in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx that has lain vacant for 15 years. The developer wants to turn the massive 57,500-square-foot building into a mall, including a 60,000-square-foot grocery store, which has drawn fire from two local grocers that fear it will put them out of business. Four commissioners sympathized with this issue and voted against the project, though it was still approved by 8-4 with one abstention.

During the meeting, the room was stormed by about two dozen unionists who have also been fighting Related for wage guarantees, along with the borough president Ruben Diaz, Jr., who was in the audience. The commission did not comment on this issue, but pressure will no doubt be brought to bear on the council. “I vote yes on this item trusting that progress on this project will continue,” commissioner Richard Eaddy said.

Another contentious community project was approved yesterday, this one with little uproar. Despite an alternative plan with the support of some 40 community groups, the commissioners approved the city’s rezoning application for the Broadway Triangle 11-1 with one abstention.

The commissioners who did speak up embraced the position of the community board, which argued that a good plan—with contextual zoning and nearly 1,000 potential units of affordable housing—was created in the worst of ways by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which largely ignored the community in the process. “We have had these issues with HPD in one manner or another in the past,” commissioner Irwin Cantor said. “I hope we don’t see HPD making similar errors in the future.”

As for Jean Nouvel’s midtown tower, it had already been approved in September, when the commission unexpectedly chopped 200 feet off the top, leaving it at 1,050 feet. Then, at City Hall two weeks ago, the council decided further changes needed to be made to the street-level facade, which had been more of a concern to the community all along.

Despite a personal plea from Nouvel to restore the full height of the tower, the council instead referred it back to the commission after reducing the hotel square footage from 150,000 square feet to 100,000, which eliminated the requirement for a loading dock on 54th Street. (The council also requested that MoMA make the wall to its sculpture garden more transparent and community friendly, something that has been a bone of contention since the expanded MoMA reopened in 2004, though that changes was not under the purvey off the commission.) The changes were approved unanimously, and the council is now expected to vote on them in the next few weeks.