NEWS AND ISSUES


Testimony by NYS Senator Thomas K. Duane
Before the New York City Council
Subcommittee On Zoning And Franchises
Regarding The ULURP Applications
Related to the Western Rail Yards


November 23, 2009

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York Statefs 29th Senate District, within which lie both the Western and Eastern Rail Yards and the surrounding neighborhoods of Chelsea and Clinton-Hellfs Kitchen. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

The Western Rail Yard development, from West 30th to West 33rd Streets between 11th and 12th Avenues, is an extraordinary opportunity for Manhattanfs West Side and for New York Cityfs future. By bridging the Western Rail Yard, a hole that divides Chelsea from Clinton-Hellfs Kitchen will be filled with a new residential and commercial community, exciting new public open spaces, and a vital elementary and intermediate school. Moreover, the long-term lease of the land will provide the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) with a steady flow of much-needed capital.

I want to express my gratitude to the MTA and to the Related Companies (Related), the sitefs developer, for their commitment to working with the community, and for following some of the recommendations that Manhattan Community Board Four (CB4), I, and other local elected officials have made thus far in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Unfortunately, despite some positive changes, the current proposal is far from perfect, and I wish to highlight a number of serious concerns that remain.

One of my and CB4fs long-standing goals is the creation of housing that is permanently affordable to those with moderate- and middle-incomes. Toward that end, I am grateful for the off-site designation of two such affordable housing projects, one on 9th Avenue between West 53rd and 54th Streets and one just west of 10th Avenue between West 48th and 49th Streets. These buildings will provide homes for hundreds of families for whom there are currently few adequate housing options, yet who are, as CB4 has noted, "the backbone of our city."

Still, there are problematic aspects of these off-site developments. First and foremost is that the MTA is seeking 30,000 square feet of office space in the building on 9th Avenue. As I have expressed to the MTA, I feel this enormous commercial use commitment is unacceptable in a building that should be reserved for permanently affordable housing, particularly when there is other available space that could meet the MTAfs needs. CB4 has suggested that there is adequate space for the MTA's offices in the building next door to the 9th Avenue affordable housing site, which currently houses the MTA Control Center, or on the Western Rail Yard site itself. Regardless, the MTA must relinquish its claim to space in the 9th Avenue building if this proposal is to move forward.

With regard to the 10th Avenue affordable housing site, I was disturbed to learn that a new park which was to occupy all the land adjacent to the site has been reduced to half its promised size. When the years-long work on New York City's Third Water Tunnel began at this site some time ago, the community was promised that the entire space would be converted into much-needed parkland once construction was completed there. Now, I understand that the New York City Department of Environmental Protection requires some of this space so that it can access the Third Water Tunnel shaft located there. This reduction in future open space is particularly distressing in light of the current dearth of such space in Clinton-Hellfs Kitchen. As detailed in CB4's response to the Western Rail Yard land-use applications, with the Western Rail Yard development promising to bring thousands of new residents, workers and visitors into the area, there is a critical need for additional open space as well as better maintenance of the few open spaces the neighborhood already has.

I must note that the two off-site developmentsf roughly 300 affordable units pale in comparison to the approximately 5,000 mostly market-rate units to be built on the Western Rail Yard site. In order to house so many units on this footprint, the buildings will be grossly out of scale – they are far too tall. Regrettably, for all their height, the on-site buildings are planned to house zero permanently affordable housing units, and the temporarily affordable units that will be built will not target the middle- and moderate-income families that the community so desires. Such a lack of on-site permanently affordable housing is unacceptable. CB4 has proposed and Related has committed to considering a creative "conversion" solution to make permanent the temporarily affordable housing units, and I urge the New York State Housing Finance Agency and all parties to explore the viability of such a program. Moreover, I hope that Related will abide by the conditions set by CB4 for the affordable housing it has planned, especially those conditions pertaining to distribution of affordable units.

While the scale of the buildings and affordability of the proposed on-site housing leave much to be desired, I applaud the sound planning reflected in the planfs reintroduction of the street grid to the Rail Yardsf superblocks. As CB4 has resolved and Related has agreed, West 31st Street and West 32nd Streets should be so-named and should conform to City Department of Transportation standards for public streets. Given the near impossibility of opening the development to the surrounding neighborhood because of the platform that must be built over the rail yard and its resultant walls, it is particularly important that Related make the entire street-level area within the development truly public space. I urge Related to work closely with CB4 to develop a public or quasi-public governance structure for that space.

In discussing public space at the Western Rail Yard, it is important to highlight its relation to the High Line. At West 30th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, the High Line spurs east to 10th Avenue while the main trunk runs west to 12th Avenue, turns north, and then turns back east at 34th Street. As one of the most popular new public spaces in recent memory, the High Line must have a secure place in the future of the Rail Yardsf development. It must be unobstructed and preserved in its entirety, and I applaud the City Planning Commission for initiating a ULURP for City acquisition of the northern section of the railway. Further, I echo the High Line development guidelines CB4 laid out in its response to the Western Rail Yard applications, and I look forward to walking the full length of the High Line from its beginning at Gansevoort Street to its end at 34th Street.

As I and other elected officials made clear this summer, we have good reason to believe that all the residential development planned on Manhattan;s West Side puts future generations of elementary school children at risk of attending overcrowded classrooms. Thus, the Western Rail Yardfs proposed on-site school, for which I have long advocated, is a much needed provision. With only 420 elementary school seats for the approximately 600 elementary-aged children the development is expected to generate, however, it alone is insufficient. It behooves the New York City Department of Education to look at the areafs long-term school seat needs, including eliminating its planned introduction of intermediate-school seats when P.S. 51 is expanded and planning for new public – not charter – elementary and intermediate schools.

In a similar vein, fire, police, and emergency services will be severely strained by the new development. As property values are likely to rise steeply as the area develops, it is important to designate sites for such public infrastructure and community facilities now. While I appreciate that the New York City Police Department prefers to hold off on planning until development actually occurs, the New York City Fire Department has already identified its future need for a firehouse in the area, and I urge the acquisition of land for both a new firehouse and a new police station.

Likewise, adequate mitigation for the enormous influx of commuters and pedestrians is essential. CB4 has identified a number of traffic-calming measures and transit-oriented improvements which have great merit and are not difficult to incorporate.

Also, for years, CB4 and I have been advocating for a garage on the West Side to serve New Jersey Transit buses using the Port Authority Bus Terminal as well as charter buses and commuter vans. The Western Rail Yard development will not only bring in thousands of new people and their cars, it will also displace a Greyhound parking lot that houses 52 buses. Streets that are now clogged will be brought to a standstill. I have and will continue to work with the Port Authority to ensure such a garage becomes a reality at Galvin Plaza. We must get commercial buses off the street, remove the temptation for idling, and provide facilities for drivers, all while encouraging the tax dollars generated by the passengers.

The development of the Western Rail Yards is both exciting and fraught. The new community will be a welcome addition to the West Side but the development plan must improve between now and completion. Integrating the superblock into the urban grid will help ensure a lively community worthy of New York City and the West Side, but more must be done to make sure it is both physically and economically accessible to all New Yorkers today and in future generations. I look forward to continuing to work collegially and collaboratively with all stakeholders towards this end.


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