West Side Rail Yards Victor Will Face Community, Council Hurdles

Years in the making, the battle among the city’s biggest developers for control over the city’s West Side rail yards is now drawing to a close. As of The Observer’s press time Tuesday, the signs seemed to be pointing to the designation of Jerry Speyer’s Tishman Speyer as the victor, though a team of the Durst Organization and Vornado Realty Trust had not been given the pink slip just yet.

But regardless of whichever team ultimately receives the 26-acre yards—likely to get a conditional designation on Wednesday from owner the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to be followed by a scheduled contract in September—the plans face another layer of scrutiny, as the western half of the site needs to pass the city’s lengthy land-use approval process because of a zoning change essential to development there.

Those who live in the area say there are aspects of the developers’ plans, particularly that of the commercial-heavy Tishman Speyer bid, that they want to see altered. Community opposition almost always yields changes in the approval process, which requires the approval of the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

“This Tishman Speyer proposal, if that’s the land-use plan we’re working on by the time it comes to the community, it’s unlikely that it would be supported by the community,” said Anna Levin, the land-use chairwoman of Community Board 4, who has been closely involved in the rail yards development. “The fact that it’s got such massive commercial density is a big problem,” she said, noting the higher financial risk of building commercial compared with residential.

Working in the developers’ favor is a letter signed by Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Before the state took bids on the yards, she agreed that if the developers followed a set of “design guidelines” crafted with her consultation last year, she would “fully expect to support” the zoning change.

However, the letter is rather vague—“expect to support” is hardly a definitive term, nor is the letter binding—and there is no assurance that the zoning change will reach the City Council before Ms. Quinn is termed out in 2009.

The community board and the borough president will each give nonbinding recommendations about the proposed zoning change, and often their voices influence the decision of the Council. West Side Rail Yards Victor Will Face Community, Council Hurdles