Community groups complain of lack of disclosure for big development projects. This article was published Nov. 27 in Our Town Downtown.
Two major projects developed in the final months of the Bloomberg administration have prompted residents and neighborhood leaders to complain about a lack of transparency and collaboration as City Hall scrambles to complete its work by the end of the mayor’s term.
The two downtown projects — the development of the South Street Seaport and the relocation of city agencies — have become touchstones in a debate about secrecy and development. “This administration has been the least transparent that I have ever seen,” said John Fratta, chairman of Community Board 1’s Seaport/Civic Center Committee, “especially in these last few months of their administration.”
Most recently, the NYC Economic Development Corp. and the Howard Hughes Corporation were compelled in a letter sent by local elected officials to reveal their development plans for the South Street Seaport. This was after pressure from Community Board 1, community groups and residents failed to yield any information.
The letter to the EDC, signed by five elected officials in Manhattan, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, said there has been “limited information and lack of meaningful outreach to the community regarding potential development” of the Seaport and urged more transparency and collaboration.
In a different instance where official information has been scarce, details on the city’s Civic Center plan – which proposes to relocate city agencies out of ailing, inefficient buildings into newer and more cost-effective buildings in Lower Manhattan – has been given out piecemeal by city officials and only at the community board’s urging. As previously reported, residents have scrambled to mount opposition efforts to the relocation plans since word of them has spread.
City officials said they informed residents of the moves months ago by way of two public notices in the City Record. CB1 executive committee member Ro Sheffe said the moves were deliberately concealed from residents and two notices “in an obscure government newsletter” is “an outrageous betrayal of civic responsibility.”
Community Board 1 meetings have seen a dramatic increase in attendance since information on both the Seaport development plan and the Civic Center plan has become available. A meeting on Nov. 6 to discuss one of the Civic Center plan moves – which was held in a large NYS Assembly hearing room – was so packed that some attendees were held in the lobby because the room was at capacity.
The majority of those attending the meetings are residents who are opposed to what the city is planning, both with the Seaport development proposal and the Civic Center plan, which is one possible reason why city officials and developers have offered scant details.
In the case of the Seaport, residents and community board members claim that Howard Hughes and the EDC knew what they were planning to build for months but declined to share their plans with residents, despite numerous requests for information. After the letter sent by the elected officials urging transparency, Howard Hughes did release some details – include plans to construct a 50-story residential/hotel tower – to a packed Community Board 1 meeting on Nov. 19.
Robert LaValva, who operates the New Amsterdam Market, an open-air bazaar selling produce and other food-related items in front of the New Market Building, said Howard Hughes was likely being secretive about their plans for the Seaport because they saw what happened with a similar 42-story tower proposal that General Growth Properties made in 2008 when they had a lease on the Seaport. That proposal was met with strong local resistance and was shot down by the city’s landmarks commission. General Growth later filed for bankruptcy.
“I think knowing that that was in the background, that this had been attempted once before and had been met with a lot of opposition, it’s pretty logical to assume that when Howard Hughes got into it for a second go around, they took a much less transparent route,” said LaValva, who for years has championed preservation efforts at the Seaport, rendering him a de facto rallying point and source of information in the community.
“The Howard Hughes Corporation isn’t a small corporation, they didn’t come into this project blind,” Fratta said. “They knew what they were going to do when they purchased the property, they knew there was going to be a tower.”
An EDC spokesperson said the plans presented to Community Board 1 are new and had not been received by the EDC. “It’s clear that [the Howard Hughes Corporation] has now begun to fully engage with the community and will continue to do so as the project evolves,” said the spokesperson.
Before construction on their proposal can begin, Howard Hughes must first get approval from the landmarks commission, then go through a public review process with the city’s planning department, known as the Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP.
Chris Curry, senior executive vice president for the Howard Hughes Corporation, said at the Nov. 19 meeting that the company hopes to clear those hurdles by the spring of 2015. He also said that Howard Hughes would be open to more community collaboration after the new year, and that the final proposal would include a plan to save the financially struggling Seaport Museum.
CB1 will be holding a town hall-style meeting in January with Howard Hughes where residents will have two minutes each to voice their concerns over the proposal.
“The tower is going to stick out like a sore thumb, it’s going to change the whole character of the Seaport, and it’s going to be a major fight between the community and Howard Hughes,” said CB1’s John Fratta.
When asked about the EDC’s role in the Seaport proposal, CB1’s Fratta said he believes the EDC wanted to get the Seaport proposal as far along in the process as possible before the Bloomberg administration leaves office. “The EDC is equally guilty of keeping the community in the dark. They’ve been totally negligent when it comes to really looking at the needs of the community.”