Trinity Hopes to Buy City Street
To Build Office Tower and Park
Trinity Church in lower Manhattan is well known as the city’s oldest parish. But the church has long served another important, though perhaps less high-profile role as one of the city’s major downtown commercial real-estate players, owner of over six million square feet of space, and landlord to marquee tenants such as Dow Jones and Penguin Putnam Inc. And while Trinity finds its provenance in the spiritual, its real-estate arm, like that of any other New York City developer, is firmly grounded in the material-that is, forever seeking more space.
One of Trinity’s latest development plans attempts to do just that. The proposal, presented at Community Board 2’s Oct. 24 meeting, calls for the construction of a 21-story tower with 414,000 square feet of office space. Designed by Fox & Fowle Architects, the tower would sit on what is currently the site of a four-building block that Trinity owns, at the tail end of Sullivan Street, bounded by Varick, Grand and Canal streets. The current structures, Trinity says, will be demolished to make way for the new building.
What’s unique about Trinity’s plan, however, isn’t that the church requested the City Planning Commission to increase the allowable bulk of the new building, or that the commission recently gave the church its stamp of approval, but the unique way in which Trinity has gone about acquiring its added space. Trinity requested, and the commission granted, the demapping of a small stretch of Sullivan Street located in front of the site of their proposed building.
If the deal is approved, the newly demapped portion of the street will become Trinity’s property and part of the new development site, called 2 Hudson Square. The demapped street-for which Trinity has to pay the city a still-undetermined market-rate value-will increase the property’s allowable floor-to-area ratio, enabling the church to increase the size of floors seven and higher from 7,000 square feet to 12,000 square feet-more than Trinity would be granted under the current zoning laws.
As part of the deal, Trinity plans to use 4,400 square feet of the newly demapped land to expand and maintain Duarte Square, a small public park adjacent to the proposed building. Under the current park design prepared for Trinity by landscape architects Thomas Balsley Associates, Duarte Square’s footprint will increase 40 percent. “The goal is to create a very green, colorful place for the neighborhood. Right now, it’s a pretty barren space,” Allyson Mendenhall, a landscape architect working on the project, told The Observer , adding that the park design was still in the schematic phase.
That’s precisely what’s troubling neighbors, who say that although Trinity claims the city’s Parks Department will have final say on the park design, there’s nothing legally barring the church from someday turning the privately owned land on which the park will sit into a button-down office-plaza-type space. “Their attitude has been very much [that] they don’t care about the design of the park. They’re interested in gaining more space for their office building,” said Tobi Bergman, the acting chair of Board 2’s parks committee, speaking to The Observer .
There is also a feeling within the community that along with the added value which Trinity will gain for the additional footage, should come more benefits for the neighborhood; merely expanding and maintaining Duarte Square, some say, is not enough. “They’re getting 90,000 extra square feet. Let’s say it’s $40 a square foot for rental. That’s maybe three to four million additional dollars a year,” board member David Gruber told The Observer . Mr. Gruber said he’d like to see Trinity set up a fund to help some of the neighborhood’s more needy gateway parks, such as Washington Square Park, but was not optimistic about the likelihood of such an outcome. “Trinity Church has one of the worst public relationships with the community. They’re very tough players,” he said.
The church has an added financial cushion in its not-for-profit status, which exempts them from certain income taxes (though they do pay real-estate taxes). This hasn’t helped win neighborhood sentiment to Trinity’s side, either.
Stephen Heyman, director of commercial real-estate leasing for Trinity, says that although the expanded portion of the park will technically be private church property, Trinity fully intends to honor its commitment to build and maintain the park. When the project will be realized, however, remains undecided. “We’ll build when we find an anchor tenant. We’re not looking right now … it’s not a market that’s very optimistic,” Mr. Heyman told The Observer .
At the Oct. 24 meeting, board members voted unanimously to reject Trinity’s design of the park and asked that the design process be separated from the demapping of the street. And although the board’s resolution lacked teeth in that the City Planning Commission had already approved the church’s plan on Oct. 16, Councilwoman Christine Quinn, who represents the Board 2 district, called upon the City Council, which has final say on the matter, to review Trinity’s plan.
“This park is unique in that it will be designed in the land-use [demapping] process-typically, park design is done in consultation with the community board and local officials. I have questions about how much money will be set aside to maintain this park. These are the kind of issues that I think we will air out,” Ms. Quinn told The Observer .
The community’s limited input in the park-design process thus far has led to uncertainty among area residents as to who will wield final authority over the expanded space. And the fact that the park’s parameters will ultimately encompass both public and private property only adds to the confusion. “I understood that this would remain public property. I would have significant concerns if that wasn’t the case. That’s something we’re very much going to have to look at in this hearing process,” Ms. Quinn said.
With the city’s increasingly bleak budgetary outlook, residents are hoping the City Council will succeed in bringing pressure to bear on Trinity where they have not been able to. And while private funding initiatives have been instrumental in bolstering the city’s parks over the last decade, local residents still want to ensure that they’re getting a fair deal for their neighborhood.
“The Mayor is daily telling us, ‘Look to the private sector, look to the private sector.’ And so we are,” said Mr. Gruber. “But they’re taking over a street and giving us a $1 million park. This is like a land grab.”
Battle Continues Between Edison Properties and L.E.S.
The Lower East Side-home to old Jewish ghettos, new Hispanic enclaves, several public-housing projects and the ever-expanding Chinatown-is one of the last places left in lower Manhattan where there is still no Starbucks, Barnes & Noble or Gap, where the poor and recently immigrated can still manage to exist. Here, you’re more likely to come across mom-and-pop stores and old tenement buildings than name-brand chains and luxury high-rises. Residents and activists who want to keep this historic district that way are fighting developers who, they fear, would have their neighborhood go the way of the recently gentrified East Village.
For the past two years, community groups have been battling Edison Properties, the large New Jersey real-estate company that owns storage facilities and parking lots around the city. Edison hopes to make its first foray into residential development by replacing the parking lot it owns at Houston and Ludlow streets, across the street from the venerable hundred-year-old Katz’s Delicatessen, with a 23-story luxury residential tower (a.k.a. “the Needle” or “the Pencil”) to be designed by Costas Kondylis, the architect favored by Donald Trump.
At Community Board 3’s Oct. 22 public meeting, residents and activists expressed their continued opposition to the project and to the wider trend of gentrification of the Lower East Side, where hipster hangouts and chichi boutiques threaten to crowd out the working poor.
“When this project goes up and the rents for these apartments are [in the thousands] for a studio, it will give landlords in other buildings the idea that they can do that, too,” said Nelson Mar of the Chinese Staff & Workers Association, who expressed concerns that “secondary displacement” would price poor immigrants out of their homes. “This community should not just be for the wealthy, single individual who likes to go bar-hopping,” he said.
Douglas Sarini, an Edison vice president, has pledged to set aside 25 percent of the new building’s units for low- and middle-income tenants. But this so-called “affordable” housing would still be beyond the means of most Lower East Siders, said Susan Howard, coordinator of the Lower Manhattan Anti-Displacement Coalition.
Last year, Ms. Howard’s coalition of several local community groups took Edison to court after the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals granted the developers the variance required to put up a 23-story tower in a district zoned for a maximum of 14 floors for apartment buildings. Early this summer, the Supreme Court of New York ruled with the coalition, finding Edison had failed to provide relevant information when it applied for the variance. Among the facts Edison neglected to mention was that buried under its lot are a dozen gasoline tanks, relics of the Esso service station the company demolished when it bought the property in 1977. Edison must now convince the city that it has a viable plan for remedying the environmental hazard posed by the submerged tanks.
“The message is: If you don’t disclose all the facts, it catches up with you,” Lynn Kelly, the executive director of MFY Legal Services, which represented the community groups, told The Observer .
Mr. Sarini warned the board that even if the community managed to derail construction of the apartment building, it would not prevent future development of the site for large-scale commercial use.
“The only issue that this board really has to decide upon is whether or not you’d like a 23-story residential building, or some time in the future-not now, because there’s not a market for it-a commercial building that could be bigger than the residential building,” he said.
That specter didn’t appear to frighten board members, who voted almost unanimously to oppose the project. The Board of Standards and Appeals will render its final decision on Dec. 10.
Pasquale Pacifico, executive director of the Board of Standards and Appeals, wouldn’t say which way the board was leaning, but it has already approved the variance once and, according to Christopher Rizzo, attorney for the Municipal Arts Society, board members “have a history of voting for what developers put in front of them.”