Testimony Before the New York City Planning Commission Regarding the ULURP Applications Related to P.S. 51/Gotham West

December 2, 2009

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York Statefs 29th Senate District, within which lie the Public School 51 (P.S. 51)/Gotham West project site and the surrounding neighborhood of Clinton-Hellfs Kitchen. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

The P.S. 51/Gotham West development, which will occupy most of the block from West 44th to West 45th Streets between 10th and 11th Avenues, is an exciting opportunity for Manhattanfs West Side. By building on a parking lot and over a rail cut, a hole in Clinton-Hellfs Kitchen will be filled with a new residential and commercial community and an upgraded, enlarged P.S. 51, fulfilling several of the promises made to the community during the 2005 Hudson Yards (HY) rezoning process.

I want to express my gratitude to the Gotham Organization (Gotham), the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), and the New York City School Construction Authority (SCA) for their commitment to working with the community throughout the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, and especially for already incorporating some of Manhattan Community Board Fourfs (CB4) recommendations. I am pleased with many aspects of the current proposal, but I also wish to highlight some concerns that remain.

Gotham and HPD propose to build three new residential buildings containing approximately 1,200 residential rental units and roughly 17,000 square feet of retail at or below grade on 11th Avenue. This development will proceed in conjunction with SCAfs proposal to a build a new, more modern and bigger school to replace the existing P.S. 51 building, which will be redeveloped into market-rate housing.

I am delighted that the project will include the 600 permanently affordable apartments, including many available to those with moderate and middle incomes, that the community was promised during the HY rezoning. Unfortunately, only 40% of these units will have two or more bedrooms, and thus provide homes for families for whom there are currently few adequate housing options, yet who are, as CB4 has noted, gthe backbone of our city.h While I appreciate that Gotham has modified its plan to accommodate even that number, the community and I would like to see at least 50% of the units be made family-sized in order to help offset the neighborhoodfs preponderance of studio and one-bedroom units. I also urge Gotham to make the 75 additional affordable units it plans to build under the New York State Housing Finance Agencyfs 80/20 program affordable in perpetuity.

In a similar vein, I look forward to the creation, as promised in the HY points of agreement, of an affordable housing fund from the proceeds of the disposition of the city-owned land on which this project will be built. It is important that the money in that fund – projected to be approximately $20,000,000 – be reserved first for those affordable housing developments in Manhattan Community District 4 (CD4) to which Mayor Bloomberg has already committed but which have not been able to proceed due to gaps in funding. These projects, to be developed on parking lots at New York City Housing Authorityfs Fulton Houses, Elliott-Chelsea Houses, and Harborview Houses, were promised to CB4 during the HY and West Chelsea rezoning processes, and it is imperative that they be given priority for affordable housing funding generated by a project in CD4.

Generally, Gothamfs proposed buildings are contextually designed, with appropriate facade treatments and a low, broad outline. Unfortunately, the project will include one building with towers reaching 14 stories each as well as another with two towers reaching 30 and 31 stories respectively. Gotham and HPD have stated that such tall buildings are necessary in order to house the significant number of affordable units and the accompanying market-rate units that make this project feasible. While it seems that some compromise on height will be necessary in order to house the communityfs desired volume of affordable units, and I am grateful that the heights have already been lowered considerably during the ULURP process, I urge all parties to continue to work to ensure that the buildings are contextual to our neighborhoodfs low-rise character.

Any compromise on height in this development, though, highlights the urgency of the proposed 11th Avenue rezoning and its associated height limits, and I hope that DCP will move forward on that rezoning with due speed. Also, while I appreciate that Gotham has agreed not to transfer off-site the excess development rights that this project will generate, I hope to see that agreement codified in the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA), along with the building-form controls that will ensure the projectfs physicality does not materially change from the current proposal.

I am also concerned that the proposed zoning map amendment includes a C2-5 overlay, which would permit commercial uses on the entire site at 2 Floor Area Ratio (FAR), a level out of character with a residential neighborhood. While I understand the need for this overlay in order to create a General Large Scale Development, and appreciate Gothamfs commitment to limit the commercial space to 1 FAR along 11th Avenue, I urge DCP, CB4, and Gotham to develop a means by which the 1 FAR may be embodied in an enforceable agreement and the commercial overlay may be significantly reduced.

It is notable that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for this proposal projects that even without this development, the area will see a shortage of 525 publicly funded childcare slots by 2013. This project will add 56 children to that number, and the DEIS suggests that these 581 children may be accommodated by filling 71 open slots at Hartley House, by using Administration for Childrenfs Services (ACS) vouchers for private childcare, and by sending the remainder to publicly funded facilities over a mile away from home. These suggestions would be laughable if they were not so seriously inadequate. The City must commit to working with CB4 to locate a suitable place for sufficient childcare facilities, and any mitigation of the childcare slot deficit must include a funding mechanism.

Finally, while the proposal for the new school building is not before you today, it is clearly a large and inextricable piece of the P.S. 51/Gotham West project. I am incredibly excited that the community will finally get the new, upgraded, larger school it was promised and so deserves, and I thank P.S. 51 Principal Nancy Sing-Bock, her staff, and P.S. 51 parents for their unyielding advocacy.

Still, some parts of the proposal for the new school trouble me. The DEIS estimates that in a future without the P.S. 51/Gotham West project, elementary schools in the area will be operating at 193% capacity by 2013. With the proposed developmentfs introduction of 162 elementary-aged students, that high percentage will inch up to 194%, exacerbating an already terrible projected problem. Incredibly, the DEIS notes that only school operating capacity increases of 5 percentage points or more constitute significant adverse impacts, and so no mitigation of the projected increase is required in this case. While I appreciate that a main goal of this development is increased educational space, it defies logic that we would not take full advantage of this opportunity to remediate an expected significant shortfall, even if the DEIS does not specifically require such action. Specifically, I am perplexed as to why the SCA and New York City Department of Education (DOE) have committed more than 40% of the new P.S. 51 school seats to intermediate-aged students when there is such an obvious need for elementary school space.

As I and other elected officials made clear this summer, we have good reason to believe that the numerous residential developments planned on Manhattanfs West Side put future generations of elementary school children at risk of attending overcrowded classrooms. While the new P.S. 51 is a much needed step, it alone is insufficient. It behooves the DOE and SCA to look at the areafs long-term school seat needs, including not only eliminating its planned introduction of intermediate-school seats in the new P.S. 51, but also planning for new neighborhood publi – not charter – elementary and intermediate schools.

Further, I am disheartened by SCAfs proposal to replace the current P.S. 51 playground – already a small space – with a smaller outdoor space when it will have to accommodate the larger number of students slated to attend the schoolfs new building. It is crucial that SCA make every effort to find a way to accommodate a play space on the roof of the new P.S. 51 to offset the loss of ground-level playground square footage. Additionally, I hope that the City will see to it that appropriate spaces at the school – including the playground and auditorium – be made available outside of school hours to community groups for meetings, athletic competitions, artistic performances, and other events.

The long-awaited P.S. 51/Gotham West development will be a positive addition to our community. Again, I commend Gotham, HPD, DCP and SCA for their engagement with CB4 and local groups and for the many positive aspects of this proposal. Still, there remains room for improvement, and I look forward to continuing to work collegially and collaboratively with all stakeholders towards this end.

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