Council Vote on Related’s Rail Yards Plans by Jan. 1
The Observer 5/19/09
by Eliot Brown
If there was a race to get large development projects started in the city’s lengthy land-use review process, Stephen Ross and his Related Companies would be the clear winners.
On Monday, May 18, the Department of City Planning launched a long list of projects and initiatives into the seven-month-plus public approval process, two of them—the West Side rail yards and the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Armory—belonging to Related. And based on the maximum length of that process—a length of time that many, but not all, projects take—this was the final round of proposed developments that will be guaranteed a vote before the current City Council.
In the wake of November’s elections, the Council’s membership will change somewhat, starting Jan. 1—and perhaps the mayor will, too—adding uncertainty for developers in what can be a highly political process. The land-use review process is a formalized forum for debate over development projects, at the end of which the Council gives its binding vote.
Also making the cut: the proposed 1,250-foot, Jean Nouvel–designed slender skyscraper that would rise adjacent to MoMA; the Bloomberg administration’s incentive program designed to boost the number of new grocery stores in poorer neighborhoods; and the city’s plans to rezone the Broadway Triangle in northern Brooklyn.
Not every developer can be as fortunate as Related. Multiple high-profile large planned developments have been seeking public approval, but did not make Monday’s list. To name a few: Extell Development’s proposed 8.2-acre, 2,500-apartment development at Riverside South; Steven Roth’s potential new office tower where the Hotel Pennsylvania currently sits; and Community Preservation Corporations’ plans to build 2,400 apartments in Williamsburg on the former Domino Sugar Factory site.
Financing is, of course, in short supply, casting doubt on the immediate viability of such projects. But developers can reap great long-term benefits from getting rezonings now, as they clear the way for quicker construction starts when the market returns; and they typically boost property values substantially with added density allowed on sites.
As is traditional in New York development, discord between the applicants and various community, labor and other groups marks the seven-month land-use review, which includes numerous public hearings.
A collection of organizations are fighting Related’s Kingsbridge Armory project in an attempt to win wage and other concessions. Residents who live across from the MoMA tower are vehemently opposed, calling it an out-of-scale development that should not be in a mid-block location.
By far the largest project to start the public review process on May 18 was the West Side rail yards, of which Related is the designated developer (though it has yet to sign a contract for the land with the M.T.A., the owner). The eastern half of the site is already rezoned, so it is the western half that will be the subject of the approvals, and the accompanying debate.
Based on a framework agreed to in 2007 by the Bloomberg administration, the M.T.A. and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the western half of the project calls for up to 6.4 million square feet of development, including up to 5,762 apartments.
The debate with the community is likely to revolve around familiar issues: The local community board has repeatedly expressed its desire to see the giant towers reduced in scale, and more affordable housing on the site, as currently it will be 20 percent of whatever Related builds as rental buildings. (The city is also building two developments with more than 300 subsidized apartments as part of the project.)
“The biggest problems are still its scale, which hasn’t changed one bit,” said Anna Levin, co-chair of a Community Board 4 land-use committee. Ms. Levin added that she is pleased with the improvements Related has made to the design of the open space.