Boards talk about big projects

By Albert Amateau

With two mega-projects in the offing — New York University’s superblocks and Rudin’s St. Vincent’s Hospital redevelopment — Village-area residents came to a Community Board 2 forum last week to learn how other Manhattan community boards handled major projects Uptown.

Board members from Chelsea/Clinton, the Upper West Side, West Harlem and Central Harlem offered the April 13 forum advice about how they dealt with developers, city officials and their own constituents.

Those voices of experience counseled that just saying “No” was not a good policy because it could prevent the community from getting the best of a bad situation.

“Community boards tend to be all or nothing,” said Mel Wymore, chairperson of Community Board 7, which covers the Upper West Side from 59th to 110th Sts. “That’s a mistake because then you’ll have less of a say when the project is approved anyway,” he said.

Community Board 7 has recently been through a uniform land use review procedure (ULURP) for Extell’s Riverside South project, a proposed residential/commercial redevelopment on the Hudson River between 65th and 59th Sts.

“Take the time to find meaningful alternatives and have a real say on the project,” Wymore added. “If you must say ‘No’ break it down into its constituent parts so you know what you’re dealing with. And create your own terms when you draft your core statement about the project.”

Ethel Sheffer, a longtime C.B. 7 member, recalled that because of her service on the board she studied planning and became a professional planner.

“You have to become citizen experts, and you have to get professional technical help, especially with huge projects,” said Sheffer.

Developers have the great advantage, especially if they are the ones who initiate the review.

“Extell never came in with less than 12 lawyers or architects,” Sheffer recalled. “We didn’t always write everything down, especially during the last negotiating sessions when we were tired, so we made some mistakes,” she added.

Pat Jones of Community Board 9, which covers Morningside Heights and West Harlem, recalled the 2007 rezoning from 125th to 135th Sts. between Broadway and the Hudson River in the Special Manhattanville Mixed-Use District to accommodate Columbia University’s expansion plan.

Board 9’s community-based 197a land-use plan for 35 blocks of its district had been submitted to the Department of City Planning for years before Columbia filed its own 197c rezoning plan for the 17-block Special Manhattanville District in 2005, Jones recalled.

“Amanda Burden [City Planning commissioner] told us to get together with Columbia to resolve our differences,” Jones said. “We had eight pages of differences and they were essentially the same a year later.” Except for minor modifications and community benefits, which City Planning recommended, the Columbia plan was passed. “We were not opposed to Columbia’s expansion per se, but Columbia was arrogant about our concern about the potential displacement of residents and businesses,” said Jones.

Stanley Gleaton, chairperson of Community Board 10, which covers Central Harlem, recalled the rezoning of the neighborhood between 110th and 155th Sts. from St. Nicholas Ave. to Fifth Ave.

“One of our main issues was that we didn’t want 125th St. to look like 86th St. in Midtown,” Gleaton said. “Harlem has its own character with small stores,” he said, adding, “We had not been rezoned for 40 years and we wanted to maintain the people who had been there for years and also make it possible for new people with higher incomes to come in.”

Board 10, however, failed to get a preference for neighborhood residents for affordable housing and voted against the plan because board members felt they had no input into the process.

Speaking from experience, Lee Compton, former chairperson of Community Board 4, advised Village activists that it was crucial to meet as early as possible with developers and city agencies, particularly on major projects.

The C.B. 4 district had to deal with the 2008 Hudson Yards redevelopment plan for the M.T.A.-owned rail yards between 30th and 33rd Sts., as well as the earlier West Chelsea Special District, which made the development of the High Line Park possible.

“It’s important to meet with developers even before their plans for projects are finished,” Compton said. “Tell them what you think the problems will be. City Planning is not your enemy. They could be your best ally.” Compton urged Villagers to form coalitions of neighborhood group with common interests. “Get allies among other city agencies and elected officials,” he counseled.

Regarding St. Vincent’s Hospital, which Chelsea residents depended on, Compton cautioned activists to think carefully about what they want.

“We have to ask why did St. Vincent’s fail?” he said, adding, “Replacing it might be asking it to fail again.”

Jo Hamilton, chairperson of C.B. 2, which conducted the forum, said the board would be especially vigilant about taking part in the scoping sessions for the environmental reviews of the N.Y.U. and the St. Vincent’s projects.

“If we don’t get it right at that point, we might miss a chance to ask for something we want. We might not even get a seat at the table,” she said.

As for saying “No,” Hamilton said, “We’re going to work on the smartest ‘No’ that we can come up with.”