Lost in the brouhaha over the Jets stadium and the Bloomberg administration’s plan for a revitalized West Side is a broad swath of privately owned buildings in the 30′s and 40′s that the city wants to demolish to make room for a broad, park-like boulevard.
Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff’s ambitious plan calls for the city to invoke eminent domain to clear away the middle of every block from 33rd Street to 42nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, in order to create this long, landscaped, car-free Champs Elysées. Mr. Doctoroff, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, hopes to see tall office buildings and residential towers sprout up along both sides of the park.
“Creating this mid-block boulevard, we believe, will create a signature address for the commercial and residential development that will occur on either side of it,” Mr. Doctoroff said, “as well as a spectacular park in a neighborhood that basically has none.”
And were it not for one pesky building, he would be looking at the easiest land grab since the city took Robert Moses’ bulldozers away from him.
Federal Express, the international shipping company, is gearing up for a fight over its World Service Center, which stands in the path of the wrecking ball.
The shipping company doesn’t own the building in which it is housed, a 65,000-square-foot facility at 528 West 34th Street. However, over the last 15 years, FedEx has put $54 million worth of renovations into the facility, and sources in Community Board 4, which represents that district, said that FedEx has told them it would cost upwards of $140 million to relocate.
A representative of FedEx’s landlord, a family that has owned the building for three generations, wrote in a June 16 letter to the city that seizing the site would put in jeopardy 1,000 full- and part-time jobs.
“In reviewing the impact of the Hudson Yards rezoning and as laudable as open space uses are, one must be concerned that this City continues to provide employment to all economic strata,” wrote Richard Bass, a senior real-estate analyst at the law firm Herrick, Feinstein. “Sacrificing jobs for open space at this particular site is not the right decision.”
Mr. Doctoroff conceded that the FedEx facility was the “largest single piece” that his office will have to deal with when it comes time to begin formally negotiating with landlords.
Path Of Least Resistance
The city hasn’t publicly disclosed exactly which-or how many-buildings are standing in its way. (Nor will Mr. Doctoroff release an estimate of how much he expects all the condemnations to cost. Suffice it to say, however, that the city stands to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to landowners who lose their properties in the ambitious move.)
But an examination of the proposed route for the boulevard, compared with a tax map of the neighborhood, yields a fairly detailed picture of who and what will be affected by the park.
In all, the city appears to have carved a route of least resistance. Much of the park wends through aging and unused railyards, in addition to small, squat buildings with little aesthetic appeal. There are, of course, exceptions.
About 60 small-sized businesses stand in the way of the wrecking ball, but about 40 of those have short-term leases in one office building; and many of them don’t expect to be around in 2007, the earliest that construction could realistically start.
The most established businesses include a Red Cross facility, a high-end catering company, a small advertising firm, a convenience deli, a pipe manufacturer and an auto-body shop.
At least 31 rental housing units are in the way. Of those, about 25 are in a new luxury loft building, and six are located in an aging walk-up building.
Five large businesses will also have to go. They are the FedEx facility, another package-delivery service called Velocity Express, a Best Western hotel, the office building housing the 40 companies, and Splashlight Studios, a high-end, newly renovated photo studio.
Of these, the most problematic for the city is the FedEx facility, which has informally sent word that it intends to fight any eminent-domain proceeding, in which the city acquires privately held properties in the name of public good.
Another interesting negotiation may yet play out between the city and New York Waterway president Alfred E. Imperatore. Arcorp Properties, a real-estate company of which Mr. Imperatore is a principal, owns the three aging railyard lots that the city hopes to use to create its new West Side boulevard.
Separately, Mr. Imperatore’s company was served with a federal subpoena in April in connection with an investigation into whether New York Waterway inflated the ferry-service bills that it sent the Port Authority in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time, the company issued a statement saying that it was cooperating fully with the Justice Department and “was confident his inquiry will confirm our good work.”
The Port Authority couldn’t be reached by press time to comment on the investigation, and Mr. Imperatore’s spokesman said that there has been no development beyond the company’s April statement that he could address.
According to a spokesman, Mr. Imperatore purchased the lots some 20 years ago, and they have gone unused since then. Right now, Mr. Imperatore is keeping his plans for the properties quiet, perhaps to maintain some bargaining leverage with the city.
“We are aware of the city’s plan for the site and hope to achieve an equitable resolution so this exciting project can go forward,” said the spokesman, Pat Smith of Rubenstein Associates.
West Side Settlements
On the whole, the small business owners and landlords in the area seem resigned to the city’s plan. Most said they felt certain that they would be able to negotiate a reasonably fair settlement with the city for the price of their properties, and none made any serious mention of a fight.
Ken Bookspan has owned a two-story commercial building at 527 West 36th Street for 35 years, where, until about five years ago, he ran a profitable building-materials company. He now rents it out to a similar company. Mr. Bookspan said he doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress; he just wants to make sure that he gets a fair price for his property.
“I’m a gentleman who’s 60 years old,” he said. “It’s my retirement package. All I want is not to be screwed …. I don’t feel like going to court for the next 10 years.”
Bill Ashe has owned his warehouse at 534 West 35th Street since 1979. Mr. Ashe, a commercial photographer, used the building as his studio, mainly to shoot cars. He first heard about the park when city officials sent him a letter this summer, informing him that they needed to check his premises for hazardous materials that might cause a snag in the park’s development. (Mr. Doctoroff said that every owner received such a letter and that the city has, to this point, opened a dialogue with about 40 percent of them.)
“If the eminent domain is a fair and reasonable thing, it might be a good idea, because someone is going to make a lot of money from this park,” said Mr. Ashe. “Sadly, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be me.”
One business owner who is not so sanguine about the city’s boulevard is Henry Geddes, the president of Splashlight Studios. Four years ago, after his father bought the building at 535 West 35th Street, Mr. Geddes commenced a multimillion-dollar renovation of the now-gleaming, handsome, two-story white-brick building. He said it is now arguably one of the two or three highest-end photo studios in the city, and hosts weekly shoots for magazine covers along with the occasional fashion-show event.
Mr. Geddes said his concern stems from the fact that although the city compensates landlords for their buildings, it only provides moving costs for businesses that hold leases in those buildings. So while his family, which owns the building, will probably end up all right, his business, which only finished its renovation around the beginning of 2002, may be unable to re-establish itself after the eviction.
“I’m trying to build up a brand, and they’re taking the legs out from underneath me,” he said. “Every business owner who is not a landowner is going to be hurting.”
Before anything happens, the Mayor’s West Side plan has to undergo the standard advisory procedure, dubbed ULURP (for “uniform land-use review procedure”). Once the application has been certified by the City Planning Commission (slated for this spring), Community Board 4 will review it and make a written recommendation. The borough president will then review the plan and submit a written recommendation back to the C.P.C., which in turn will re-review the application before sending it to the City Council and, finally, along to the Mayor.
Sources in City Hall estimate that the city won’t be able to break ground on the project for at least several years.
To date, the local community board has not taken a stance on the issue of the boulevard, saying it is too early in the process for any judgment. But the board’s district manager, Anthony Borelli, said he is drafting an initial-outreach letter to local landowners “as we speak.”
Many of the potentially affected landlords have a similar wait-and-see attitude.
“I hope that it will be resolved peacefully,” said Richard Quad, manager of Quadrille Realty, a two-story building at 517 West 36th Street. “We were expecting the Olympics, the Jets stadium, the No. 7 subway line. We’ve been expecting something-what, we don’t know yet. We’ll leave it in God’s hands.”
-additional reporting by John Gallagher
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