While the playoffs dribble on (sans the New York Knicks), the National Basketball Association is looking for a new court. Positioning itself as the star tenant in an office tower proposed by Schulweis Realty and Tishman Speyer, the N.B.A. joined a team of lawyers and developers for a game of 5 on 50 at Board 4’s May 2 meeting.
Their hope? To score enough points with the community to win an extension of the existing permit for development of a building over a railyard platform at the southwest corner of Ninth Avenue and 33rd Street.
The permit, obtained in 1990 by developer Harvey Schulweis, then part of Lazard Realty Inc., will expire this July. Since it was issued, the developers have been in negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the Long Island Rail Road, over whose tracks they want to build.
But those negotiations have been dragging on, and little work has been completed. Under city rules, if a set percentage of work is not completed by the time such a permit lapses, the developer must start the application process all over again.
To avoid that time-devouring fate, the developers have been negotiating directly with the City Planning Commission to extend the existing railroad-construction permit. In return for the permit extension, Schulweis Realty and Tishman Speyer have agreed to a number of terms-basically, those they’d agreed to when they first secured the permit those many years ago.
But while it’s pending before City Planning, the developers also had to make their case to Board 4, which has an advisory role in the process. And that proved almost as challenging as actually erecting a tower above a 22-acre cavern created by a rail cut-through.
Board 4 never supported the proposal when it was first floated a dozen years ago, and this time around the members again gave a cold shoulder to Schulweis Realty’s lawyers, from Rosenman & Colin, who re-pitched the plan to them on May 2.
Mr. Schulweis, who was not present at the meeting, told The Observer he had no comment about the development, the plans or the N.B.A.
Even before its monthly meeting, the board had drafted a letter to the City Planning Commission urging rejection of the proposal. Edward Kirkland, chairman of the board’s preservation and planning committee and a board member for 16 years, told The Observer, “We did not oppose [it] strongly before, but we did have concerns-mostly traffic and displacement of residents living in neighborhood rooming houses.” Now, though, he feels there’s not enough of a gain to the city to tolerate “getting around the law” by creating a special three-year permit and ignoring the 10-year renewal limit.
Attorney Michael Sillerman, of Rosenman & Colin, told the board members that the developers’ request was not extraordinary. “There is reasonable land-use rationale,” he said. “Half of this 80,000-square-foot site is vacant, and the rest of it requires money and risk-taking.” He concluded by mentioning the difficulty of building over a railyard, apparently alluding to the amount of time it has already taken just to get to the actual construction.
He then passed the ball to Harvey Benjamin, the senior vice president of business affairs for N.B.A. Properties, who explained why the new headquarters are needed. The N.B.A. now operates from multiple offices, Mr. Benjamin told the board; Fifth Avenue is home to the corporate headquarters, while entertainment production takes place in Secaucus, N.J. Mr. Benjamin called the arrangement “inefficient” and inadequate for the 21st-century needs of professional sports organizations.
“You think of the N.B.A. as a league that plays basketball,” Mr. Benjamin said, “but we and other sports leagues have become major entertainment entities.” Sensing he had not quite scored, Mr. Benjamin took another shot: “We’re losing our creative juices when we’re not all under one roof.”
Though consolidating in the Garden State is an alternative, the Association prefers to be near Madison Square Garden, or at least in Manhattan. (The proposal has no relationship to the many plans swirling around to move the Garden, move Penn Station or build an Olympic, Jets or baseball stadium in the neighborhood.)
When a board member suggested browsing other boroughs, Mr. Benjamin jumped in, saying: “The N.B.A. would not be interested, with all due respect to Staten Island and Brooklyn, because so many employees live in New Jersey.”
Board member Ross Graham rebounded: “At the risk of the wrath of my family, maybe we should let you go to New Jersey.” The crowd went wild.
She added: “Even the N.B.A. is not really worth a special permit. They’ll probably get it anyway, but we don’t have to help them.” All but six members of the Board agreed, passing the motion to send the letter expressing their disapproval to the City Planning Commission.
West Side Moves Closer To New Recreation Center
They say all good things come to those who wait, but community residents who frequent the 59th Street Recreation Center say their decade-long wait for renovations borders on lunacy. West Side residents alternately describe the city-owned center on West 59th Street between 10th and 11th avenues as “dilapidated,” “old” and “dirty,” but appeared relieved to find out during Board 7’s May 1 meeting that the center may finally get a much needed face-lift.
The proposed $25 million overhaul is more than just your average nose job. What started out as a modest attempt to bring the aging building up to code with repairs to its outdoor pool and greater wheelchair access is now slated to be a state-of-the-art sports and recreation facility.
Mary Rosado, president and founder of Friends of the West 59th Street Center, said the new plan was long overdue. “This is not a time for piecemeal renovations,” said Ms. Rosado. “Let’s go for the whole enchilada.”
The “whole enchilada,” the so-called hybrid plan, calls for a full-court basketball gym, a redesign of the locker rooms and the construction of an additional “official-size pool,” among other things. The plan is the result of a six-month effort by a joint task force formed by Boards 4 and 7 last fall, not to mention a whole lot of history.
After a major falling out with the Parks and Recreation Department over stalled plans for renovations at the center, board members last June put together the 59th Street Recreation Center Task Force. At the time, Board 7 members were outraged to learn that the Parks Department had put a freeze on developer Tishman Speyer’s plan to renovate the center’s outdoor pool. In lieu of doing the renovation, Tishman Speyer put up $2.6 million, to be used for a different recreation project on the same site. Last summer, Board 7 passed a resolution that forced the Parks Department to place the $2.6 million in escrow and give local residents a chance to come up with a plan of their own.
The Parks Department’s initial resistance was in large part generated by concerns about the viability of maintaining an outdoor pool and the availability of funding. According to Melanie Wymore, Board 7’s lead task-force representative, many of those fears were calmed this year after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in his new budget proposal, added $800,000 to the Parks Department allocation for the 59th Street upgrade. The board is reviewing several avenues to make up for the $22 million shortfall, including private donations, federal matching funds and funding from the city and state.
Yet even with this seed money and a plan, the uncertainty of the financing means that’s not the end of this West Side story. In fact, it is still possible that the Parks Department’s original suggestion to sell the center site and use the proceeds for a brand-new rec center on a whole new site could win out.
Board 7 will consider its options at its June meeting. Meanwhile, Board 4 will tally its own votes on the issue.
“I stand behind this alternative, and a lot of board members stand behind it,” said Ms. Wymore. “In a few years, we’ll see a recreation center materialize right before our eyes-not just by magic, but by a lot of hard work.”
May 9: Board 6, N.Y.U. Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 319-3750.
May 10: Board 5, Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27th Street and Eighth Avenue, Building A, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 465-0907.
May 15: Board 1, St. Margaret’s House, 49 Fulton Street (at Pearl Street), 6 p.m., 442-5050; Board 11, La Guardia House, 307 East 116th Street, between First and Second avenues, 6:30 p.m., 831-8929.
May 16: Board 8, Ramaz Lower School, 125 East 85th Street, auditorium, 7 p.m., 758-4340.
May 17: Board 9, Community Board office, 565 West 125th Street, between Broadway and Old Broadway, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200.