Fight to Save Our Neighborhood South of Union Square: From Bowlmor Demolition to the ‘Zero-Help’ Hotel Special Permit

Fight to Save Our Neighborhood South of Union Square: From Bowlmor Demolition to the ‘Zero-Help’ Hotel Special Permit

On Saturday, November 14th, 2015, a crowd of over 150 people gathered across from the Bowlmor Lanes building at 110 University Place, which was in the process of being demolished and replaced with a nearly 300-foot tall tower stocked with luxury condominiums. The group, led by Village Preservation, then-City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, then-Community Board #2 Chair Tobi Bergman, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and actor and long-time Villager Edward Norton, had one aim in mind: curb the wave of luxury, hotel, and dorm development targeting the area and save the University Place and Broadway corridors which lie outside of the protections of the Greenwich Village Historic District. In the years since, the threats to this part of our neighborhood have intensified, and recent plans by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Councilmember Carlina Rivera to address the community’s concerns with a hotel special permit continue to offer zero help.

Rally on 11/14/2015. Photo courtesy of Village Preservation.

In particular, that November we called for a rezoning plan proposed by Village Preservation and endorsed by all local elected officials and the community board. The existing zoning rules basically guaranteed (and continue to guarantee) that new development in Greenwich Village and the East Village south of Union Square would consist almost exclusively of luxury condominiums, hotels, or dorms. The proposed rezoning plan, if it had been adopted before work began on the foundation of the new development, would have interrupted the rise of the new building and others like it. It would have required that future developments stand no taller than 10-12 stories (120 feet), and would have utilized the City’s “inclusionary zoning” mechanism to strongly incentivize the inclusion of 20% affordable housing in new developments. In this plan, Village Preservation also identified over a dozen locations in the area that would likely be developed moving forward – either with high-rise luxury towers, office buildings, hotels, or low-to-mid-rise buildings, with strong incentives for residential uses and inclusion of affordable housing.

Planned Bowlmor Development Existing Zoning vs. Proposed University Place Rezoning. Image courtesy of Village Preservation.

Site of Bowlmour Lanes, 110 University Place. Photo courtesy of Google Street View. 

Fast forward to March of 2017: the rezoning plan was denied by the city, another 300-foot tall office tower was planned for Broadway and 12th Street, a commercial development plan was emerging at Broadway and 11th Street, and an oversized hotel was set to replace a row of Beaux-Arts style ca. 1890 walk-up tenements on East 11th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues that contained dozens of long-term, affordable housing units. To top it off, the Mayor had just released plans to built a 22-story “Tech Hub” that would anchor the emerging “Silicon Alley” from Astor Place to Union Square. While the first project was thankfully thwarted when Village Preservation got the site landmarked due to its connection to Willem de Kooning and a vast array of influential figures in American art, industry, and commerce, the latter three projects are now underway.

The Tech Hub project, which was approved despite massive resistance and broke ground on August 5th, 2019, is especially troubling for the surrounding Greenwich Village and East Village communities because the project, and the upzoning which enabled it, encourages more of the “Silicon Alley” and “Midtown South” type and scale of development we are seeing increasingly throughout the area. Councilmember Rivera actually pledged in her 2017 City Council campaign to condition her support of the 14th Street Tech Hub on comprehensive neighborhood protections for the affected Greenwich Village and the East Village as Village Preservation proposed, but she voted for the project, and the upzoning, without securing such protections.

After months of research and Freedom of Information Requests, Village Preservation exposed the shady terms of the Mayor’s 14th Street Tech Hub deal and upzoning (read the report with full details). First, the developer of the planned 22-story office tower on the site will actually be paying less in rent to the City than the 2-story PC Richards store which operated there for decades. Second, the City has no written records of why the developer who was selected was chosen over other less controversial and impactful plans. Finally, RAL Development, the winning bidder for the project, made at least $10,000 in contributions to Mayor de Blasio’s non-profit “Campaign for One New York” at the time the company was seeking selection. Meanwhile, the head of Suffolk Construction, their partners in the project, threw a $5,000 per head fundraiser for the Mayor’s group. Even more worrying is the fact that, on a site originally earmarked for affordable housing, only 3 out of 21 above-ground floors of the building will provide training or other services for the public, and the rest will be used for for-profit, high end, “trophy-class” commercial space – largely tech offices with amenities like roof decks and terraces for their tenants.

Almost four years after the rally at the Bowlmor site, on October 28th, 2019 the City released a proposal for a special permit requirement for hotels south of Union Square. This proposal has been packaged as a response to the concerns that emerged from the community following the approval of the Tech Hub, and the City states that, if adopted, it will reduce the number of hotels erected in this neighborhood. While this would seem to be a step in the right direction for those of us concerned with the proliferation of hotels in the area, the plan, according to the City’s own analysis, will instead merely enable the development of office towers of equal size and height where hotels would have otherwise been built. This will likely, in turn, accelerate the spread of “Midtown South” and “Silicon Alley” and precipitate the destruction of valuable historic sites in a residential neighborhood composed largely of low-to-mid-rise buildings. In fact, the plan goes so far as to identify, and offer a green light to, potential development sites on East 10th and 12th Streets where office towers would replace low-rise 19th-century residential buildings that once housed artists Willem de Kooning and Reginald Marsh.

The City is hoping its new hotel special permit requirement will help generate more office tower development in Greenwich Village and the East Village south of Union Square, like these buildings (l.) at 799 Broadway at 11th Street (under construction) and (r.) 809 Broadway (completed), accelerating the spread of ‘Midtown South’ and ‘Silicon Alley’ to the area following the 14th Street Tech Hub approvals.

The plan is a far shot from what Village Preservation called for in November of 2015 when the Bowlmor building was demolished, and what it has called for since. And according to recent press reports, it is clear that the Mayor is not trying to control out-of-character development in this area. Instead, he is paying back the Hotel Trades Council for being the only union and one of few entities to support his presidential campaign. The plan is also supported by large hotel developers who have also donated generously to the Mayor, and who believe the plan will limit competition for their establishments. To make matters worse, the decision-making process for approving new hotel developments will fall in the hands of Mayor de Blasio and Councilmember Rivera, who have both displayed a disregard for mitigating overdevelopment and maintaining promises to the Village communities.

The City’s plan specifically envisions historic ca. 1840 rowhouses likes these at (l.) 88 East 10th Street and (r.) 11 East 12th Street, which currently house residences, being demolished to make way for tech-related office towers.

Already, Village Preservation has found the city’s Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS) for its proposed hotel special permit requirement full of striking errors and inaccuracies. Read our letter outlining these alarming discrepancies here.

The 14th Street Tech Hub developers released a press release on October 22, 2019 redubbing their project “Zero Irving” for its location just below the start of Irving Place. We are in turn dubbing the hotel special permit proposal, which merely swaps out office tower development for hotel development in our neighborhoods, “Zero Help” for the East Village and Greenwich Village communities.

So what do we do next? The proposed special permit will now go through a public hearing and review process, starting at the two local community boards representing the affected areas. The Land Use Committee Meeting of Community Board #2 (covering the area west of Fourth Avenue) was held last night. The Land Use Committee of Community Board #3 will meet next Wednesday, November 20th at 6:30PM. Village Preservation especially encourages those who live in the area covered by Community Board #3 (east of Fourth Avenue) to attend:

Land Use Committee Meeting of Community Board #3
(covers the area EAST of Fourth Avenue)
Wednesday, November 20th at 6:30 pm
Sirovich Senior Center & Volunteers of America
331 East 12th Street (1st/2nd Avenues)

We also encourage you to send a letter to City officials saying this scheme offers zero protections for Greenwich Village and the East Village, and we demand more be done.

Also, click here for information about new research and support for South of Union Square landmarking.

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