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Comments Of State Senator Thomas K. Duane On The Draft Scope Of Analysis For The Draft Environmental Impact Statement Regarding The Proposed Western Rail Yard Project

 

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York State's 29th Senate District, within which lie the three sites involved in the proposed Western Rail Yard Project. I appreciate the New York City Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ("MTA") giving me the opportunity to submit comments on the draft scope of analysis for this project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

Before I give my specific comments, I wish to praise the considerable community consultation and public outreach about this project in the many months leading up to this point. From the consultative process during the development of the Design Guidelines in 2007, to the public viewing of the five bids to develop the Eastern and Western Rail Yards, to the other many large and small meetings held with Community Board Four (CB4), local elected officials, and the community, I have been gratified by the reception and responsiveness of the various City and State agencies involved. I hope that this level of consultation and outreach continues as this project winds its way through the approval process, and that it serves as a model for future State- and City-led development projects.

While I still have reservations and concerns regarding this specific proposal, I am heartened by some positive aspects that have been included all along, as well as some changes that have been made since the original plan was presented. I particularly appreciate the continued commitment to a public school at this site, as overcrowding is a tremendous and growing problem in District Two schools. Further, I am pleased to see that the selected developer of the site, Related Companies, has elected to preserve almost all of the High Line and transform it into a park similar to what is already being built south of West 30th Street. In addition, Related's commitment to making permanent all on-site affordable housing, facilitated by the New York State Housing Finance Authority's (HFA) 80/20 program, will help to maintain the diverse community that typifies the West Side. Finally, the reintroduction of some semblance of New York City’s street grid into this plan is a positive change from Related's original design and reflects the preferences of this community and CB4. The introduction of streets to the Western Rail Yard superblock will help to ensure that this enormous development is integrated into, rather than walled off from, the surrounding neighborhoods and City. These positive attributes of the current proposal speak not only to the commitment that the City, MTA and Related have to creating a superb development, but are also a mark of the intelligent, diligent, thoughtful and persuasive work of CB4 and other neighborhood and community interests.

While there is much to applaud in this proposal, I do have concerns with some aspects of the project as laid out in the Draft Scope and I ask they receive special scrutiny in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). In particular, I believe that the affordable housing program in this proposed development is insufficient in both the number of units created and the diversity of income levels. The creation of affordable housing is an essential mitigation to the effects that this development will have on the character of the West Side. Recent large rezonings on the West Side of Manhattan have been held to the goal of making 30% of residential development affordable, with a mixture of units for low, moderate and middle income families. Unfortunately, this plan falls well short of that goal.

The number of affordable housing units that will be created onsite is variable, as Related's current proposal commits only to making 20% of the rental units affordable, and restricts those units to low-income tenants. In fact, there is actually no requirement that there be rental units onsite, and by extension there is no requirement that affordable housing units be created. That said, I do believe that we will see rental buildings – and thus affordable housing – on the site. The largest number of affordable housing units envisioned in the Draft Scope is 413, or a mere 7.6% of rental units on the Western Rail Yard; conversely, the lowest number of affordable units to be produced is about 309, or 6.75%. Given this community's stated goal of 30% affordability, 7% or 8% is wholly inadequate. The onsite affordable housing program needs substantial enhancement, and I ask the City, State and Related to explore alternate affordable housing programs and think creatively and expansively, as is suitable for a development of this magnitude.

The City of New York has also committed $40 million to build offsite affordable housing on two City-owned sites in Clinton-Hell's Kitchen. While the Draft Scope outlines what the dimensions of the buildings will be, there is no discussion of the approximate number of units that would be created. I think it is clear that the community would support buildings as large as possible within the context of the neighborhood so as to maximize the number of units created. I second CB4's suggestion that the income guidelines for these units vary across the spectrum to include low, moderate and middle income households. Further, it is also worth noting that there is a great need for special needs housing in our City, including housing for older New Yorkers, those with HIV/AIDS, recovering substance abusers, ex-offenders transitioning back into society and those in the arts struggling to make it. Finally, I am skeptical about whether $40 million will be sufficient to build on the sites, as the Draft Scope notes that one of the buildings will have to be built over a functioning Amtrak Northeast Corridor Line rail cut, which is proving to be prohibitively expensive at other project sites in my district. While the offsite affordable housing will increase the affordability ratio of the project as a whole, it is still essential that the future Western Rail Yard itself be an economically and socially diverse neighborhood, and only integrated affordable housing will achieve this goal.

As we discuss the future of the Western Rail Yard and how to ensure that it is a smartly planned community, the preservation of the entirety of the High Line is also eminently important. I am grateful that Related has proposed to keep all of the High Line at the Western Rail Yard site, as it is a significant historic resource that will lend unique character to the site and, as has been shown along the High Line further south, will lead to increased property values. However, I am troubled with the proposal to build above the High Line at the southwest corner of the site. I ask that consideration be paid in the DSEIS to the importance of the East-West view corridor and sunlight to the High Line itself and to its purpose. In addition, the Draft Scope mentions that a portion of the 12th Avenue section of the High Line may be removed to facilitate construction, and then replaced. I would ask Related to explore construction scenarios outlined by the Friends of the High Line in which no portion of this historic structure would have to be dismantled, even temporarily. Finally, while the Eastern Rail Yard is not being discussed at this time – though it should be since these two sites are inexorably linked – I hope that the City, MTA, and Related will see the wisdom of preserving all aspects of the High Line at that site as well. This includes the "Spur" located over the intersection of Tenth Avenue and West 30th Street, which is a crucial point along the High Line that has the potential to become a truly unique and extraordinary addition to the Rail Yards. I understand that at some points the preservation of the High Line may increase costs and construction technicalities, but to not take advantage of a resource of this magnitude now will be a mistake regretted for decades to come.

While many people think of the Western Rail Yard as an empty piece of land occupied by tracks, the site currently has an important use that will be displaced by the proposed development. Greyhound Lines, the Long Island Railroad and the New York City Department of Sanitation all use a portion of this site to park a significant number of buses and cars. It is clear to anyone who has visited this area that there is already a severe traffic problem in both Chelsea and Clinton-Hell's Kitchen. Specifically, Clinton-Hell's Kitchen and the other areas affected by Lincoln Tunnel traffic are inundated with charter, jitney, and New Jersey Transit buses that wander up and down and park on the residential streets. This is why I have been a strong supporter of a planned Port Authority Bus Storage Facility to be constructed near the Port Authority Bus Terminal that will take some of the New Jersey Transit buses that presently lack a garage off our streets. Unfortunately, current plans for the facility are underwhelming and many buses and vans will not be given a home there. All of us on the West Side are very supportive of public transportation, but accommodations must be made for buses and vans both before and after they have dropped off their passengers in our neighborhood. The DSEIS must study the effects of the lost parking spots at this site, especially the Greyhound buses, and it must go beyond noting the increased need for bus parking and suggesting minimal changes to parking regulations and traffic lights, as so many environmental studies do. The increased traffic from the development on the Western Rail Yard, when combined with the dislocated Greyhound Lines buses, will create an intolerable condition that must not be allowed without significant mitigations.

Before we consider other mitigations that will be required to accommodate this development, the ones identified as necessary in the Hudson Yards Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) must be reconciled. The Western Rail Yard development joins Block 675 to the south in diverging from what was studied in the Hudson Yards FGEIS, and in both cases, the changes bring thousands of additional residents and/or visitors with a wide range of needs to the area. The mitigations identified in the FGEIS but thus far not accounted for include a new firehouse and day care center, along with two substations and a transmission substation for ConEd. In addition, I suspect that even with the new public elementary/intermediate school planned for the Western Rail Yard, additional school capacity will be needed. A lesson learned from the current fight over school overcrowding is that it is exceedingly difficult to find locations to house new public facilities, and it behooves us in government to plan for the future so that we do not have to backtrack once this neighborhood has been established.

I suspect that the DSEIS will identify significant mitigations necessary to offset the enormous number of people who will live and visit this site if it is constructed as presented. The effect of approximately 6 million square feet of development on that size lot is hard to conceptualize. Further, when combined with the enormous development planned on the Eastern Rail Yard, and the very large-scale development likely on Block 675, the sheer number of people and scale of the buildings will be unprecedented in our City. I sincerely hope, for both Related and the MTA's financial sake, and even more the sake of the people who live and work in and around the area now and in the future, that this scale does not produce an uninhabitable environment.

In these uncertain economic times, it is heartening that a project of this magnitude is still moving forward. I know that this deal is crucial to the MTA’s future fiscal solvency, though it should not be the case that land deals have to make up for the inexcusable lack of government aid to a necessary public good like mass transportation. I am encouraged that Related Companies, a frequent developer in my district and one that embraces some of my same priorities, will be developing the parcel. I would also like to acknowledge the members of CB4 and the Hudson Yards Community Advisory Committee for their exhaustive attention to this issue and their extensive comments on the Draft Scope.

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to comment on the Draft Scope. I appreciate your consideration of my concerns and suggestions as the Western Rail Yard project moves through the approvals process.