Area residents still against proposal, DSNY shoots down CB6’s suggested alternative sites
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Community residents and members of Community Board 6 were packed in at an unusually well-attended Land Use and Waterfront committee meeting last Wednesday to hear a presentation from the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) on some of the new plans for the Brookdale Campus at East 25th Street and First Avenue.
The EDC first became involved in the project last year due to the protesting from the community and elected officials, demanding a more comprehensive plan for the site. EDC is now working with DSNY on the project, but DSNY is still the lead agency for the garage proposal, which encompasses the middle section of the site. EDC is the lead agency on the development of the bookend parcels of the site and will be working with the community to come up with options for the development of that property. The EDC has also formed a working group to address possibilities for the bookend property of the site, consisting of community board members, elected officials, residents and other community advocates, which will first meet on February 23 and it will be holding up to eight additional meetings through the end of April.
The most recent meeting on the garage, which itself was held inside one of the buildings at the Brookdale Campus, was mainly an opportunity for the DSNY to come before the committee and the public and discuss changes to its proposal for the garage. It is the first time since a previous meeting in June, 2013, also held in the auditorium at Brookdale, that DSNY has publicly spoken about the proposal and it is the first time the EDC has come to one of the committee meetings specifically to address the proposed sanitation garage.
This particular meeting had also been postponed a number of times due to scheduling and weather, but when the two agencies got through their respective presentations, the consensus among the residents was no different than at meetings in the past: we don’t want this garage in our community.
Kate Van Tassel, Vice President of the EDC, wasn’t able to get through much of her presentation before being interrupted by an angry resident who said that he was sick of hearing the same thing from the city about the garage proposal and was upset that the construction of the garage would mean giving up a viable housing facility. Van Tassel explained that this presentation was actually new, and did offer different options for community space on the bookend parcels such as affordable housing, which has not been discussed at previous meetings on the garage, but all of the plans were working under the assumption that the sanitation garage would still be located in the middle portion of the property.
Van Tassel set forth a preliminary timeline for the process, noting that the current building would likely be demolished in 2018 and the garage would open in 2022, although she added, “The further out from 2015 we get, the more unsure we are about the timeline.”
In terms of what is likely to happen this year, though, Van Tassel said that EDC should have a set of recommendations by this May to reframe the Environmental Impact Statement scoping hearing and there will be another ULURP hearing this coming fall. As a more rough estimate about what will be happening beyond this year, Van Tassel said that from 2016 to 2018, the agency will be working on construction drawings and procurement for contractors, which is a long process with the city, and construction will be from 2019 to 2022.
Although representatives from DSNY noted that they would still be open to alternative locations for the garage, their entire presentation on Wednesday focused on changes to the plans for the current site as previously laid out by DSNY architect Mike Friedlander. DSNY representative Kathy Dawkins said that there were some differences in the proposal compared to early iterations, including the length of the facility, which was increased to allow the building to be lower, and the establishment of a dedicated lane for Sanitation vehicles to enter the facility without affecting the traffic exiting Bellevue.
Friedlander also addressed the proposals offered by BFJ Planning, the firm that CB6 hired to come up with alternatives to DSNY’s plan, and it was the first time that DSNY publicly commented on the other options that the firm had come up with. He noted that there are a number of significant issues with the proposed Con Edison site.
“Con Ed owns it and the city can’t take over land from a utility,” he said. “We would have to go through the (request for proposal) process and then it would go to whoever put down the most money, which wouldn’t even necessarily be the city. Con Edison doesn’t want to sell to us anyway. And the property was under so much water during Hurricane Sandy, we wouldn’t be able to use the facility in an emergency capacity until the flood water receded.”
Friedlander said that the second proposal from BFJ, to build a partially underground garage, is problematic because each floor of the building is 24 to 30 feet, meaning they would most likely have to build 50 feet underground and the area has a high water table, which could lead to drainage difficulties.
“It would be very expensive and time consuming,” he said. “If the floodgates were to fail, people down there would drown and the mechanical equipment would be destroyed by the salt water. It wouldn’t be legal because the building has an emergency capacity and it needs to be built above the floodplain. Ventilation would need to be put in through a sort of series of snorkels. It would just become incredibly expensive.”
There were specific design changes on DSNY’s original proposal, but the presentation also included an effort to make the garage more aesthetically appealing to those in the surrounding area.
“We’ve made it a pretty entrance and the front is like a high end office building,” he said. “It’s going to be on a tree-lined street and have a tree-lined walkway. There will be photovoltaics on the roof. We’ll be lower than any of the other buildings in the neighborhood so we tried to make a pretty roof so the surrounding buildings would have something nice to look at, with Waterside looming over everybody.”
Residents at the meeting picked up on this re-branding effort, however, and were having none of it.
“We’re not here to make the project prettier,” said East Midtown Plaza resident Peter Goodman. “We’re here to not get it built.”
Goodman added that he agreed with Sanitation that it was a valuable piece of property but suggested that the land should be used for park space.
“We’re going to do everything we can to work with elected officials to prevent this from being built,” he said. “These meetings are not going to get us to change our mind. We want to work with you but for a different project.”
Another East Midtown Plaza resident, Jeanne Poindexter, said that Sanitation’s plan doesn’t consider the garage’s impact on the community. “You have all these maps in these presentations, but your map doesn’t show the community,” she said. “We see the whole neighborhood and your plans don’t include the welfare of the community. The fate of the entire area has already been decided.”
There were questions raised about the rezoning of the area to accommodate the garage, and while Assistant Commissioner of Environmental Affairs for DSNY, Steve Brautigam, said that the area would need to be rezoned, he pointed out that since the plans have changed, Sanitation would only need to rezone to M1-5 rather than M1-6, which would limit the size of the building.
Janet Handal, President of the Waterside Tenants Association, expressed frustration at the meeting that questions from residents had been submitted almost two years ago and had not gotten any response from DSNY. She echoed the sentiment from other members of the community at the meeting that there is a lack of communication from DSNY about the project.
“Nobody is talking to us,” she said. “You’re spending all this time and effort on presentations and you haven’t talked to the community to see how we live. This feels like it’s being rammed down our throats. We’re frustrated and we’re angry and we know our community perhaps better than you do.”