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Testimony Regarding Two Trees Management Company Proposal

 

Testimony by NYS Senator Thomas K. Duane
Before the New York City Council Committee on Zoning & Franchises
Regarding Two Trees Management Company's Development Proposal for 11th Avenue
between 53rd and 54th Streets

April 20, 2009

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York State's 29th Senate District, which includes Manhattan’s Clinton-Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and the proposed Two Trees development site. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

Two Trees Management Company (“Two Trees”) proposes to build a large Z-shaped building on the east side of 11th Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets. This mixed-use building will rise from seven stories at its western end to 32 stories at its eastern end and contain approximately 1.3 million square feet of floor space. It will house 845 residential units, of which 169 will be permanently affordable under New York City’s Inclusionary Housing Program. It will also house a Mercedes Benz dealership; the New York Police Department (“NYPD”) Mounted Unit’s stable; a community facility; a health club; and an accessory parking garage for up to 225 cars.

First, I want to commend Two Trees for its active and persistent engagement with the community. It is a prerequisite for any good development that the community’s concerns be heard and taken into account, and the changes made by this developer at the community’s behest have significantly improved the project. While I still have important reservations about this specific proposal, I appreciate that it will provide a number of benefits to the surrounding neighborhood.

Two Trees’ agreement to open up what was to be a grocery store space for a community facility – available for long-term lease at a nominal rent – is an especially worthy commitment, and I thank the company for this change in response to community input. Further, I and many in the community are grateful that Two Trees has offered a permanent home for the NYPD Mounted Unit that will allow it to remain in Community District 4 (“CD4”). In the unlikely event that the NYPD decides against relocating the stable to this development, I hope that the company will agree to turn over the designated space to community use.

There is a perennial need for permanent affordable housing in New York City, and thus Two Trees’ decision to make 20% of its units permanently affordable under the City’s Inclusionary Housing Program is particularly laudable. I also appreciate Two Trees’ commitment to distribute the affordable housing evenly on all floors and to provide the same fixtures and finishes to both affordable and market-rate units; these are crucial commitments which other developers should emulate.

Furthermore, its garage – which will contain no public parking but will include space for 600-700 bicycles and prioritize car-share services and alternate fuel vehicles – should be seen as a template for modern-day garages. Indeed, its main features ought to be made permanent.

Finally, Two Trees’ offer of providing $50,000 per year to support DeWitt Clinton Park is a welcome recognition of the park’s importance to the neighborhood’s existing and future residents and should be guaranteed through an adequate enforcement mechanism.

Though there is much to applaud in this proposal, I do have some significant concerns. Unfortunately, the type of affordable housing planned for the building &ndsah; predominantly studios and one-bedrooms – is not what the community needs. A glut of small apartments, both market-rate and affordable, have been built in CD4 in recent years, partly due to the fact that the New York State Housing Finance Agency’s (HFA) mandates favor the construction of smaller units. Manhattan Community Board Four’s (CB4) long-established goal of encouraging middle-class families to put down roots in our neighborhood requires the development of larger, family-sized units. I would like to see a greater share of two-bedroom and larger units in this development, and I encourage HFA to work with CB4 and grant the necessary approvals to facilitate this change.

I also have concerns about the height, density, and facade of the building. While I acknowledge changes Two Trees has made to the proposal, including the elimination of one full residential floor and a reduced floor-area ratio of 8.55, the building will still be extraordinarily tall (with a top height of 317 feet) and dense compared to the rest of the neighborhood. Clinton-Hell’s Kitchen is a low- and mid-rise neighborhood punctuated with the occasional high-rise exception, and every additional tall building disrupts its unique character. The building’s proposed monolithic facade will make it an even more imposing presence in the area. Two Trees should look into facade treatments that will reduce its monumental proportions by breaking up what is now to be a solid slab of gray and glass.

I am further concerned about the C6-3X commercial zoning designation that Two Trees is seeking for this site. This is a residential project in a residential neighborhood and the precedent that would be set by granting this commercial designation is a dangerous one. The stated reason for seeking a commercial rather than residential designation is to reflect the ground floor Mercedes dealership; however, I am not convinced that commercial zoning is necessary as the dealership will be mostly below grade and therefore not counted as zoning floor area. In addition, even under the proposed commercial zoning, Two Trees has to seek special permits and a zoning text amendment to accommodate the dealership and the NYPD stable. The same actions could be sought within an alternate, residential zoning designation, as recommended by CB4. At the very least, the proposed C6-3X zoning does not aptly describe this mainly residential project, and a commercial zoning more disposed toward residential development, like C2-7A, could be utilized here. This zoning issue also highlights the need to accelerate the 11th Avenue rezoning process to ensure that the residential character of the corridor is preserved.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to comment here today. I appreciate your consideration of my concerns and suggestions as this project moves through the approvals process.