By Geoffrey Croft
NYC Park Advocates, June 21, 2017
Upper Eastside and East Harlem residents are fuming over a $ 1 billion dollar proposed development being pushed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on the border of the two neighborhoods.
The plan would hand over Marx Brothers Playground to a developer to build a massive 760-foot tower with 1,100 apartments, three schools, and retail space on the corner of 96th Street and 2nd Avenue, a project the community refers to as “The Wall.”
At 760 feet, it would be the tallest building north of 60th Street and taller than any building in the other four boroughs—a height area residents say would be egregiously out of context with the community.
Since it is illegal to build on public parkland for non-park purposes and since parks do not have zoning, the city is attempting to get around this by having New York State legislators temporally seize (alienate) the park to allow development by creating commercial zoning.
This would set a very bad precedent, one that could open the floodgates and, at a minimum, allow the development of not only every single one of the NYC Parks Department’s approximately 250 jointly operated parks properties it shares with the Department of Education (DOE) throughout the city, but ALL parks could be subjected to development if this proposed legislation is passed.
Literally NO Public land would be safe.
The massive 1.1 million square foot project would encompass an entire city block.
Speaker Mark-Viverito has partnered with the Educational Construction Fund.
The original 2012 plan only included the School of Cooperative Technical Education (Co-Op Tech), which is already on the block. ECF already had a signed agreement with developer AvalonBay according to the head of the ECF who says the scope of the project changed dramatically in 2013 when Mark-Viverito insisted that three schools be built there.
“A lot of the factors changed over the last three years at the request of the Speaker’s office we were asked to move the two additional high schools into the parcel so that changed the design obviously,” said Jennifer Maldonado – Executive Director of Educational Construction Fund/Special Assistant to Deputy Chancellor during her testimony before the City Planning Commission on May 10th.
According to ECF, the plan would also allow the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center—a long time important project of the Speaker’s—to expand. The center, located on Lexington Avenue and 105th Street, currently shares space with The Heritage School, one of two “new” high schools the Speaker is hoping to move to 96th Street.
“The use of the entire building by the cultural center is a strong priority for Speaker Mark-Viverito,” ECF wrote to City Planning in a 92-page response obtained by NYC Park Advocates.
Neighbors who live on 96th Street and south are also furious because they say they have been left out of the discussion and point out that most of the impacts will be felt there.
The project is already making its make through ULURP.
The 2004 parkland alienation language that allowed the MTA to use the park for building the Second Avenue Subway explicitly stated that upon completion of construction, “the lands shall continue to be used for park purposes.”
However, this administration has other ideas. They have gotten New York State legislators to introduce alienation legislation to block that.
“Construction of the second avenue subway is completed and the city of New York would now like to turn over the block on which the playground is located to the New York City Educational Construction Fund to permit the construction of a combined occupancy structure.”
After a 10-year absence, the community expected the city to begin rebuilding the city playground later this year after the MTA vacated the property in September. The land was used as a staging area to build the Second Avenue subway during this time.
According to the new plan after all 1.5 acres of parkland are seized and developed the land between buildings would be rebuilt for use as a public park.
The residential tower is not anticipated to be finished by 2023 which means the community’s playground and heavily used artificial turf field – much of which will now be shaded by a massive tower for a good portion of the day – would not be available at least an additional five years.
Under the terms of the 2004 parkland alienation bill, the MTA is legally required to restore the playground.
However, on May 10th Jennifer Maldonado testified before City Planning that there was no money for Marx Brothers Playground.
“The playground is not budgeted either,” she said. “This is not in the parks budget plan.”
According to ECF they, along with AvalonBay will contribute approximately $ 8 million for the renovation and upgrading of Marx Brothers Playground.
A Walk In The Park asked the Parks Department what the status of the MTA funding was. Requests have not yet been returned.
Adding to the theatre of the absurd the City is now claiming the park is, in fact, not a park and does not belong to the Parks Department and development is already permitted under its current zoning.
In its 92-page (at times laughable) response to City Planning, the City repeatedly asserts that Marx Brothers Playground is not parkland. But it is covering its bases.
“Although the Marx Brothers Playground is not and has never been parkland, the City and ECF have determined that in connection with the Proposed Project, it is prudent to obtain new legislation.
The designer of the proposed new park, Stephen Whitehouse, a former chief of planning for the Parks Department claims in his letter to City Planning that the new park location – beside the 760-foot building – is safer because they plan on raising the park a foot higher to get it out of the 100-year flood zone. For the past 60 plus years the playground has been safely dry on Second Avenue.
The billion-dollar project depends on State Parkland Alienation legislation approval to achieve its goals.
Jennifer Maldonado, Executive Director of ECF, said they met with all the Assembly members, parks committees, two days before the May 10th hearing.
“We actually have legislative language to alienate the playground. We have both Senator Serrano and Assemblyman Rodriguez’s support. Senator Serrano will take the bill up for vote,” Maldonado said. Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez had a conflict, NYC Park Advocates later learned.
Rodriguez is a Vice President at A.C. Advisory, a company that is involved in bond financing for ECF projects. A.C. Advisory is listed as the financial advisor to New York City and related authorities in the placement of bonds.
Is his employer, A.C. Advisory, Inc., acting as the financial advisor in the placement of the bonds financing for this project? By press time we were unable to verify that or whether he would be recusing himself from voting if the bill comes to the floor.
But Assemblyman Rodriguez did fail to disclose that conflict when a group of constituents met him at his office last month to discuss the project.
After three days of calling his office two weeks ago A Walk In The Park got a call back saying that he was not pulling out.
However, in his place the City enlisted Bronx Assembly member Michael Benedetto – who represents the North-East section of the Bronx to carry it for the Assembly. He also heads the influential City Committee.
The de Blasio administration has been lobbying heavily in Albany according to several State officials. State Senator José M. Serrano also quietly introduced the bill last week.
Ms. Maldonado said she is hoping the bill makes it through this session. State Legislators could vote on the bill as early as today.
The city quietly passed the bill’s Home Rule message last week during its stated meeting.
During the May 10th hearing Planning Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin pushed back on the numerous goals for the playground.
“Clearly there are a lot of very good public goods being planned for this site—no change in the playground size, three ‘new’ schools, permanent affordable housing, but that comes at the cost of a building that is 724 feet tall,” she said.
“You may call it 68 stories but in linear terms that’s 72 [stories] tall. That’s almost as tall as the Time Warner Center,” Commissioner Levin said. “How does that kind of height make sense at this location?”
“As we’ve talked through the assemblage and the constraints on how the site needs to be actually configured, up is the only way to go, quite honestly,” Maldonado responded.
Commissioner Levin pushed back.
“Are we asking the applicant, the developer to carry too many public goods into this project? Are we producing a building that makes no sense in terms of its scale?” she countered.
“I would say no, I think that in terms of you know what we are trying to do. I’m not sure if there is a right answer quite honestly, to be honest with you,” Maldonado replied.
The ECF head then attempted to justify the funding scheme and the reason why the city and state are pushing to give the public parkland to a private developer, and in the process allowing AvalonBay to assume the role of government.
“There are no capital dollars available for these schools to be frank. There are no capital dollars, this is not on DOE’s list, there’s no capital budgeting allowed for these schools. This is the only way these schools will happen,” Maldonado said.
“The only way we can keep these schools operational is to use the playground,” she said.
“As a zoning attorney I am very concerned about the project,” Caroline Harris of Goldman-Harris said, when she testified at the May 10th City Planning hearing.
“It appears it achieves its huge size by using a deal structure that of temporarily transferring the playground and the rest of the block to ECF circumventing basic zoning principles. The definition of a zoning lot and the fact that public playgrounds do not have development rights.”
“When there is a MIH (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing) component there is a real driver to go higher than the neighborhood context. This is way beyond going higher than the neighborhood context, this is going to the Neighborhood of 57th Street context,” Harris testified. “I think its way out of scale here.”
Several residents who live in the Speakers district on 96th Street also complain that when they finally found out about the plan and tried to ask questions at a Community Board 11 meeting in March they were shut down by the Speaker.
“Does anyone from the community have any questions,” several recalled her saying.
“We are her constituents,” said Silve Parviainen who attended the meeting.
At the May 10th City Planning hearing, Maldonado admitted she had not made a formal presentation to Community Board 8.
Last week CB 8 fired off a letter to City Planning saying they had, “Serious concerns, ” about the project.
For more than 60 years children of all ages have enjoyed the unfettered access to light as result of a corner location of this playground and adjacent open field. This proposed plan would destroy that.
The community is demanding that the playground be restored to its original location at 96th Street & 2nd Avenue, and a sensible plan to be developed.
The Department of City Planning (CPC) voted to approve the controversial plan on Wednesday morning.