Paging Dr. Harold Varmus: Negative Results on Build Plan
A year and a half ago, Dr. Harold Varmus went to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital with impeccable credentials-former director of the National Institutes of Health, a 1989 Nobel Prize-and a mandate to rev up research at the East Side institution.
Dr. Varmus, Sloan-Kettering’s new president, wanted to bring in renowned scientists. Attract research dollars. Make Sloan-Kettering, the cancer-treatment hospital, and Sloan-Kettering, the research center, symbiotic, simpatico, an engine and transmission perfectly in tune.
On July 18, in a hot and humid auditorium on the nearby Rockefeller University campus, Dr. Varmus found himself trying to articulate that plan before several hundred Upper East Side residents, most of whom were angry, if not downright hostile. Like Donald Trump and scores of other big-name would-be developers before him, he was subjected to the ultimate New York City experience: an appearance before a community board. And even with the air conditioner throbbing steadily in the background, Dr. Varmus looked like he was beginning to sweat just a bit.
Dr. Varmus’ hopes for a revitalized Memorial Sloan-Kettering research center had taken the form of a gigantic new building on East 68th Street-a 440-foot-tall laboratory tower, with roomy offices and the latest in equipment, to be used as a lure to keep top researchers and attract new scientists and doctors to Sloan-Kettering’s staff.
To build this building, Dr. Varmus will need money: $500 million to $700 million. But he’s also seeking a substantial boost in the zoning for the institute’s main campus, from 66th to 69th streets between First and York avenues. Which is where the community board comes in.
Standing before Board 8, his back to the hundreds of critics in the audience, Dr. Varmus made his case. But the board, and Sloan-Kettering’s neighbors, had other things on their minds, such as what increasing the hospital’s as-of-right building allowance will mean for the area in the future.
Increasing the allowable building height, while also designating the institution a “large-scale community facility”-a technical designation that would further ease future building restrictions-is like writing Sloan-Kettering a blank check to build in a neighborhood already congested and threatened by encroaching towers, some neighbors said.
“This board stands for good zoning,” board member Teri Slater said. “The helter-skelter development in this neighborhood is not just driven by science, it’s driven by development. We’re about compromise; in this board, nobody gets everything they want.”
But Memorial’s attorney, Shelly Friedman-who also represents other powerhouse institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art-defended Sloan-Kettering’s request for increased zoning, saying, “We’re at a point where a conference room could not be added to this campus without a variance; this is unacceptable.” Sloan-Kettering representatives were also quick to point out that they had already compromised on their proposed tower, which will be 80 feet shorter than the 520 feet they’re allowed on that single site.
Dr. Varmus told the board the new research facility is badly needed to enhance the institution’s ability to develop lifesaving treatments. “We’ve now entered the era of magic bullets, in which drugs are designed based on our knowledge of cancer research,” Dr. Varmus told the board. “We live in an extraordinary neighborhood: Rockefeller University, Cornell Medical School, Memorial Sloan-Kettering-all of these create an environment where investigators, post-docs, students and faculty clinicians are bumping into each other …. This is a place where we generate an academic environment.”
But not all members of the community-even the medical community in which Dr. Varmus figures so prominently-agree with his argument for consolidation. “They [Sloan-Kettering] know very well that everything doesn’t have to be centralized or consolidated in one institute,” Dr. Lawrence Yannuzzi, vice chairman of ophthalmology at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Institute, told the board. “To consider everything under one umbrella-that is not the way research is conducted today, and to lead the board or other public officials or governmental agencies, or the public itself, down a primrose path of misinformation by suggesting that we need this monstrously large complex in our neighborhood, with all the implications and the devastating potential impact, is wrong.”
Manhattan Assemblyman Alexander (Pete) Grannis made the unusual suggestion that the world-class hospital ship its research to another borough: to Long Island City in Queens. “There has been overwhelming opposition to this project,” he told the board. “It is roundly condemned in this community.”
But Dr. Varmus dismissed the idea. “I don’t want to sound strictly elitist,” Dr. Varmus told the board, “but there is a difference between research and research that yields dramatic results. Dramatic results come from centers where the best people of many disciplines get together, incentivized by the presence of patients and students and post-doctoral fellows.”
Dr. Varmus had plenty of supporters.
“I don’t know any researchers; for all I know, they’re a bunch of self-centered bastards,” said Miriam Hecht, a math teacher at Hunter College, at the meeting. “But the fact is these people save a community of cancer patients. When you look at the tradeoffs, you can’t trade that for the amenities of this privileged neighborhood.”
The debate dragged on for hours, with both board members and neighbors split. Finally, Board 8 voted 22-19 to recommend that Sloan-Kettering’s application be rejected, reversing a July 16 subcommittee recommendation supporting the hospital’s plan.
The board’s recommendation will now go to the borough president’s office, which has 30 days to act before the issue goes to the City Planning Commission and City Council.
Neighbors Praying That Buddha Stays Away
When Buddha Bar opened on the Champs-Élysées in 1996, it brought new glitz to one of Paris’ most chichi districts and immediately jetted onto the A-list as one of Europe’s top nightspots.
For some reason, that doesn’t have the neighbors of a new Buddha Bar-set to touch down in Chelsea by next spring-boogieing across any dance floors.
A franchise of the Buddha Bar has leased space in the Chelsea Market, the gigantic shopping and dining complex at Ninth Avenue and 16th Street. At the July 18 meeting of Board 4, residents lambasted the plan, saying it will bring more noise, traffic and late-night activity in a neighborhood with plenty of residents who are trying to get some sleep.
Board 4 is involved because it can support or recommend the rejection of liquor-license applications.
The proposed location for the club is directly across the street from the Fulton Houses, the largest public-housing complex in Chelsea-a jarring juxtaposition with a venue designed to appeal to affluent customers, neighbors said.
Among their big worries, neighbors say, is that a 500-person capacity venue with a requested 4 a.m. closing could aggravate traffic, noise and pollution in an area already saturated by large nightclubs, including Roxy and Park within two blocks of the proposed site.
Buddha Bar would also feature live disc jockeys and a retractable roof, prompting concerns about noise. The bar’s owners have offered to close the roof by 10 p.m., but residents are not satisfied.
“The only place in this city that needs a retractable roof is Yankee Stadium!” one elderly woman shouted from the crowd.
Melva Max of the Far West Chelsea Neighborhood Association was furious that Buddha Bar’s proprietors have been marketing it to residents as a “family restaurant.” With live music every night and a souvenir stand selling CD’s and T-shirts, Ms. Max said, Buddha Bar is clearly a nightclub masquerading as a restaurant.
But Raymond Visan, owner of the Paris Buddha Bar, told The Observer: “There is a misunderstanding between what we are and what people think we are.
“We are a restaurant,” Mr. Visan continued. “It’s not a club; it’s a restaurant and bar. We have lots of neighbors in Paris, and we don’t have the slightest problem.”
Despite residents’ protests, Board 4 approved a letter to the State Liquor Authority in support of Buddha Bar’s application. However, the letter included stipulations on late-night noise from music and air-conditioning equipment.
The State Liquor Authority held a hearing July 3 on Buddha Bar’s application, but no decision has been reached, according to an S.L.A. representative. Mr. Visan told The Observer that construction is set to begin this fall, and the club should open by the spring of 2002.
July 31: Board 1, South Bridge Towers Community Room, 90 Beekman Street, between Cliff and Pearl streets, 6 p.m., 442-5050.