East Side Neighbors Fear Memorial’s Unchecked Growth

When Harold Varmus took the helm at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in January 2000, the Nobel laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health made it clear that cancer research was his passion and expansion of the institution’s facilities his goal.

Already Dr. Varmus, Memorial’s president, has overseen the successful realization of a new 67th Street surgical facility and pediatric center now under construction. But neighbors of the sprawling Upper East Side complex-spanning 66th to 69th streets between York and First avenues-are just now learning about the next phase of Memorial’s growth, and many find the community’s prognosis worrisome.

Indeed, Board 8 is gearing up for an extensive review of the institution’s latest plan, the construction of a mid-block 440-foot tower on East 68th Street. The project requires Memorial Sloan-Kettering to petition the Department of City Planning for a zoning change that will raise the existing height restrictions on several East Side blocks. Slated to break ground in 2002, the new facility has a projected budget of $500 million to $700 million and may not be done until 2007, Memorial officials said.

“The field of cancer research is just exploding,” says Dr. Alan Houghton, chairman of immunology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, who was commissioned by Dr. Varmus to evaluate the institute’s expansion needs. “We’re busting at the seams,” he told The Observer, adding that the new 490,500-square-foot research building will serve as a much-needed replacement for the outdated and overcrowded Kettering Research Laboratory at 430 East 68th Street.

The two-phase project, still in the nascent stages of the approval process, calls for a 23-story Skidmore, Owings and Merrill–designed building to be constructed on the 68th Street site of what is currently the St. Catherine Catholic Church rectory. Memorial purchased the rectory from the church in 1995 for $15.4 million, as part of a deal that included the then-defunct St. Catherine’s school and convent, which have since been demolished. Memorial has pledged to build a new rectory and auditorium for the church on the lower floors of the proposed tower and will provide interim housing for St. Catherine’s clergy during construction.

Once the tower is completed-Memorial officials estimate by 2005-the adjacent Kettering Research Laboratory will be demolished and a building of as-yet-undetermined height will be constructed in its place. Completion of this second phase is anticipated in 2007.

For residents of the blocks surrounding the cancer institute, however, it is the institute’s proposed rezoning, which includes a mid-block strip from 66th to 69th streets between First and York avenues, that they fear the most. “If Memorial is permitted to rezone these blocks, they will not have to seek any further permission from the city to tear down any buildings and put up much larger ones in that area,” said Suzanne Fawbush, co-president of the Friends of St. Catherine’s Park.

If approved, the rezoning request would substantially increase the permitted floor-to-area ratio on all buildings on those blocks. In addition to the zoning increase, Memorial has asked that the city recognize the institution’s larger rebuilding ambitions, including replacing its main hospital building by 2011. While future projects are still subject to approval by the City Planning Commission, the hospital would have a great deal more flexibility in how much and how high they choose to build.

“I don’t think there’s a person that objects to Sloan-Kettering’s need to update their facilities, but the problem is the height of the building. The community is very concerned about a tall tower in a mid-block,” said Carolyn Greenberg, member of a Board 8 subcommittee formed to address Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s plan.

At a May 15 meeting of the Board 8 subcommittee, more than 200 area residents showed up for a presentation of preliminary sketches of the proposed building by Sloan-Kettering’s architects. “The people showed up because they didn’t know anything … Sloan-Kettering has not been overly enthusiastic about getting the neighbors involved,” Ms. Greenberg told The Observer. Memorial officials, however, said that they’ve already met with the community on several occasions.

The rezoning request is being reviewed by the Department of City Planning. Although no decision is expected until June, in March the agency released a preliminary report stating that Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s plan “may have a significant effect on the quality of the environment … [and] an environmental impact statement will be required.” The report went on to cite 16 of the plan’s potentially harmful effects on the neighborhood, from transportation and noise to air-quality and construction issues.

If Memorial’s application is ultimately approved, the institute will then formally submit its plan, along with an environmental impact statement, to the community board. The board’s recommendation then goes to the City Planning Commission, which sends its vote to the City Council. Memorial officials said they’re hoping for a Council decision by year’s end.

As for funding the project, with $123 million in charitable contributions last year alone, Sloan-Kettering isn’t worried. The institute’s spokesperson, Avice Meehan, says a capital campaign is already under way and that reserve money will also be used; the remaining funds will be raised through loans or bonds.

For the researchers at the institute, meanwhile, the proposed plans are the stuff of a science geek’s dream. “This is going to become a fulcrum between research and treatment in cancer,” waxed Dr. Houghton.

-Petra Bartosiewicz

May 24: Board 2, St. Vincent’s Hospital, 170 West 12th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 10th floor, 7 p.m., 979-2272.