‘Completely Unacceptable’

May 09, 2023

Originally published in The Broadsheet Daily on May 05, 2023.

Local Leaders Slam Decision to Move Ahead with Mostly Market-Rate Housing at World Trade Center Site

A phalanx of Lower Manhattan elected officials and community leaders are condemning the announcement by the administration of Governor Kathy Hochul that residential development at Five World Trade Center (5WTC) will move ahead with only a slight increase to the State’s original commitment for affordable housing at the site, while also reducing how affordable those apartments will be by boosting tenant’s income limits.

The controversy focuses on a plan, approved in 2021 by the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), to erect a 900-foot-plus tower on the publicly owned vacant lot that occupies the three-quarter-acre block bounded by Greenwich, Albany, and Washington Streets, and Liberty Park. That plan originally called for a 78-floor building, including 69 floors of rental units, comprising 1.2 million square feet of residential space. Of the 1,200 apartments planned for the structure, 25 percent (or 300 units) were initially slated to be permanently affordable homes, set aside for households earning an average of 50 percent of the area median income (AMI), or below $66,700 for a family of four.

Since this original plan was announced, a chorus of leaders have called for a greater percentage of the units in 5WTC to be reserved for people unable to pay unregulated, market rents.

Under a revised version of the plan unveiled Wednesday at a meeting of two government agencies overseeing the project—the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and LMDC—the number of affordable units at 5WTC will increase to 30 percent (360 apartments), but income limits will rise to an average of 85 percent of AMI, or $113,390 for a family of four.

At the ESDC/LMDC meeting, State officials argued that increasing the number of affordable units at 5WTC beyond the new threshold of 30 percent would require massive subsidies. The presentation by ESDC staff indicated that increasing the total affordable units to between 35 and 50 percent (or 420 to 600 apartments) would require a subsidy between $58 and $500 million, depending on the income limits imposed on the tenants. They then announced that ESDC was moving ahead with the revised plan by seeking legal, regulatory, and financial approvals, with a timeline that will aim to lock in these proposed terms by next April.

Elected officials and community leaders who have been working for two years to formulate a way to increase affordability at 5WTC (see rendering) reacted with fury. “It is completely unacceptable that these agencies are attempting to move forward with a public approvals timeline without coming to an agreement on how to maximize affordability at the site,” said State Senator Brian Kavanagh. “It is reasonable to expect that public agencies that control a major development site in a community where affordable housing is so scarce would work to provide significantly greater levels of affordability than we might expect from the sorts of deals that have typically been done on private development sites.”

“The current housing crisis in New York City already leaves far too many households unable to pay rent and places huge financial strain on the most vulnerable families,” said U.S. Congressman Dan Goldman. “Access to affordable housing is a lifeline, and is sorely needed in the area surrounding the September 11 site. The Lower Manhattan community, including September 11 survivors and elected officials, have repeatedly stressed the need for maximizing affordability at 5WTC. It is imperative that this project not move forward until there are significant steps to achieving that goal.”

“Ensuring real affordable housing for Five World Trade Center gives us the unique opportunity to give back to the September 11 responders, survivors and their families who have sacrificed so much,” said State Assembly Member Charles Fall. “I strongly oppose any agreement that doesn't prioritize actual affordability.”

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine observed, “with Five World Trade, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide a significant amount of affordable apartments in Lower Manhattan. While I recognize that this project must move forward, I also believe that we cannot undermine this opportunity by imposing a one-year timeframe to maximize affordability. ESDC and the development team must hold off on approvals and work with stakeholders to find the funding that will maximize the number of affordable homes in this project.”

City Council member Christopher Marte said, “it is unacceptable that ESDC would seek approvals for Five World Trade Center when the unanimous call for more affordability on site has not been addressed. There is no reason to move forward now while the State has failed to answer our call to find necessary funds for this essential project. We are asking for a serious commitment from ESDC to find the financing we need, before entering any approval processes. I am confident that a combination of State and City tools can result in significantly more affordable units at lower income brackets.”

Community Board 1 (CB1) chair Tammy Meltzer said, “CB1 doesn’t take rain checks for affordable housing. Punting the conversation to some uncertain date, while moving forward on all the other approvals is tantamount to ESDC shrugging its shoulders. We are not ready to give up and we ask the State to match our willingness to find a solution before proceeding.”

A representative for the Coalition for a 100 Percent Affordable Five World Trade Center, a grassroots community organization pushing for maximum affordability at the site, said, “we are appalled that LMDC would put forth a plan that ignores the community's needs. This community has fought for over two decades to build fully, deeply affordable housing that would promote diversity and give September 11 survivors and first responders a home in the neighborhood they helped rebuild. The proposed plan is unacceptable both in quantity of affordable units as well as the level of affordability. And it is unacceptable that public agencies effectively wash their hands of any responsibility for the search for and provision of funding for this desperately needed affordable housing.”

The plan approved by ESDC and LMDC is predicated on a policy axiom dictating that any development at the site must generate as much (or more) revenue on a per-square-foot basis as the office developments that have been erected elsewhere within the complex. This arbitrary requirement effectively renders it administratively impossible that 5WTC be dedicated to any public service purpose that does not maximize financial return.

Such a policy is contradicted by multiple other nearby uses. The leases granted by the Port Authority and LMDC to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, and the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine (all located within the World Trade Center complex) rent many acres of publicly owned land—worth hundreds of millions of dollars—at a price of one dollar per year to each of the non-profit organizations that operate those facilities.