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Testimony of Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum at
City Council Hearing on West Side Rezoning, 12/13/04

Thank you, Chairwoman Katz, Chair Avella.
For months now, I have said that I support the redevelopment of the West Side of Manhattan. Everyone agrees that the Hell’s Kitchen/Hudson Yards area affords an important opportunity to realize the development goals and ambitions of New York City .
What I cannot support is a misguided plan that reflects the ideas and desires of only a handful of men. I have said it before and I will say it again: It is wrong of Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Doctoroff to ignore the needs of residents when it’s their space being used and their tax dollars being spent.
In the past few months, we have seen token hearings held by the Planning Commission, which ultimately ignored the substance of New Yorkers’ concerns.
New Yorkers want and need affordable housing, attractive public spaces, vibrant street life, and sensible economic growth. Sadly, the administration’s plan fails to adequately provide for any of these needs. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Doctoroff have stubbornly insisted on a plan that deliberately undercuts the goals of their constituents.
Affordable housing is the City’s single most desperate need, but their plan does not make the most of a golden opportunity to creatively and extensively address this need. In fact, it includes an artificial limit on residential development. The Mayor and Deputy Mayor boast that they’ve revised the plan to include more units of affordable housing. But they’re still sticking with an artificial limit instead of listening to the demands of the marketplace, so the West Side will likely end up with far fewer units than it could support.
Why are two business men refusing to listen to the demands of the marketplace? Because they need to limit the amount of housing on the West Side so they can load it with 26 million square feet of office space. Never mind that there is a high vacancy rate in the offices we already have and more units are on the way for Lower Manhattan , Downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City . Never mind that their claim of high demand for office space is based on irrelevant pre-9/11 projections. And never mind that they have so far failed to attract an anchor tenant. The administration needs office space to pay for its risky financing scheme, which bypasses the standard capital budget process.
As much as Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Doctoroff would like us to judge their rezoning proposal in a bubble separate from the Jets stadium, the idea of doing so is absurd. The stadium is the tail wagging this dog of a West Side plan. They can pretend otherwise, but we all know the truth. Recently, the New York Times editorial board said, “There has been an air of inevitability surrounding the stadium, and pitifully few opportunities for genuine public input…But this is the kind of project that should be decided by the political process.”
Nonetheless, there is plenty wrong with the plan apart from its subservience to the stadium. I have already mentioned its suppression of housing development, its overabundance of commercial space, and its daredevil financing. There is also the degraded quality of life that the plan will inflict on residents of the West Side and citywide.
The administration plan ostensibly sets limits on the density of development, but a “district improvement bonus” allows developers to pay for the right to build at even higher densities. This “zoning-for-sale” provision will add to the already excessive density proposed for 10 th and 11 th avenues, especially the four corners of the Eastern railyards, where the plan allows for buildings of unlimited height.
Adding to the Mayor and Deputy Mayor’s vision of Midtown-on-the-Hudson is the concentration of open space on an expensive boulevard that displaces homes and businesses. The boulevard will function less as a park for families than as a shopping corridor and lunch-break spot for office workers.
The northward expansion of the Javits Center will block off access to the waterfront, including the 39th Street ferry terminal. In fact, residents’ and visitors’ view of, and access to, to the waterfront will be blocked throughout the neighborhood by the Javits Center and the stadium. But since it’s not considered a part of this rezoning, I’ll ignore it and move on.
The Mayor and Deputy Mayor assure residents that the neighborhood will not become one giant parking lot, but at the same time have slipped a sizable parking garage into the plan and called for a higher parking allowance on the West Side than anywhere else in the Midtown area. Again, they will likely claim that they have already compromised on the issue of traffic by lowering the parking maximum. But the truth is that they’re sticking with their intention to raise the parking minimum, the number that really counts because they are bracing for a traffic nightmare brought on by the arrival of 75,000 visitors on certain Sundays. What will those 75,000 be visiting? A building that has absolutely nothing to do with this rezoning proposal.
I believe it is obvious by now that this plan had many serious flaws. Member after member of the City Planning Commission acknowledged as much, saying they were troubled by the lack of a robust housing component and that they knew residents were dissatisfied with the plan. And yet only one Planning Commission member voted against it.
The decision the Planning Commission faced was not a choice between something and nothing, and neither is the decision the Council faces now. Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Doctoroff didn’t descend from the mountaintop with their West Side plan carved on stone tablets. It is not the word of God. The Council has the right and the responsibility to change the parts of this plan that are faulty, that don’t support the vital interests of your constituents.
By all means, let’s develop the West Side of Manhattan, but let’s allow the demands of the market to determine how much housing versus how much commercial space we build.
By all means, let’s encourage job creation and economic growth, but let’s shift the high-density office development from 11 th Avenue to the more logical location around Penn Station and the 34 th Street corridor, rather than forcing the Hell’s Kitchen/Hudson Yards neighborhood to become an extension of Midtown.
By all means, let’s expand the Javits Center and create new open space, but let’s do it without cutting off access to the beautiful Hudson River , without unnecessarily displacing residents and businesses that have been there for generations. Let’s put sensible limits on the height of buildings and on parking, so the West Side can fulfill its potential to be one of New York City ’s most vibrant, attractive, and desirable neighborhoods.
By all means, let’s build on the Hudson Railyards, but let’s have an open public discussion and a full Council review of what we intend to build, instead of pretending that dropping a football stadium in the middle of a neighborhood has nothing to do with the redevelopment of that neighborhood or with the future of the City as a whole.
The following are the specific issues I believe the Council must negotiate with the administration: The text for the C zones should not restrict housing development. There should be no “district improvement bonus” that allows developers to build beyond the density limits. The concentration of high-density commercial development should be shifted from 11 th Avenue to the 34 th Street commercial corridor. The parking garage should be eliminated and parking allowances held to the same level as the rest of Midtown. The waterfront, including the 39 th Street ferry terminal, should be accessible.

In addition, I urge the Council not to approve this rezoning—or any—rezoning until it has thoroughly analyzed the proposed financing. On Wednesday, I will testify before the Finance Committee on a variety of issues pertaining to the Mayor and Deputy Mayor’s financing scheme for the West Side . For the purposes of this hearing, I will simply point out that, in order to pay off the bonds that the Hudson Yard Infrastructure Corporation intends to float, the administration is counting on rampant speculation in office space.
As I indicated earlier, the plan for 26 million square feet of office space on the West Side amounts to little more than wishful thinking. If the Council approves of a rezoning package that includes expensive items like the extension of the 7 line, it must be sure that package is responsibly financed. The West Side can be rezoned without plunging the City into debt for generations.
The West Side is just one of a number of major rezonings and redevelopment projects slated to take place throughout the five boroughs. Once these rezonings have taken effect, it is unlikely that they will be altered for a minimum of fifty years.
The decisions we as a City make in the months ahead will change the face of New York for a long time. The character of our neighborhoods, the appearance of our streets, our ability to attract business and house families—all of these considerations and more will be affected by the policies of the Bloomberg Administration.
But the Bloomberg Administration is not the sole bearer of responsibility, or at least it should not be. All of us should have a say in the future of development in our City. By railroading this plan past the standard forms of public review, Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Doctoroff have tried to cut off public discussion and undermine the authority of the Council.
But despite their best efforts, the power to change their plan is still in your hands. I call on you to make wise use of that power. I am confident that you will act in the best interests of your constituents and all New Yorkers.
Thank you.