Manhattan West Gets More Public Space

by Louise Dewast and Patrick McGovern

Rendering of new Manhattan West development in Midtown (Courtesy Brookfield Properties)

Rendering of new Manhattan West development in Midtown (Courtesy Brookfield Properties)

By appointing a new Chair of the City Planning Commission, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged a new approach to development that confronts the city’s inequality crisis. According to a recent press release, the mayor is asking Carl Weisbrod to “lift up working New Yorkers, keep neighborhoods affordable, and create stronger, more resilient communities.”

And developments in Hell’s Kitchen are the City Planning Commission’s first test. Just last week, city officials and developers of the massive Manhattan West development hammered out final details, announcing that the public would be getting a larger open space out of the deal. But while principals are still talking about how many hours that space will remain open every day, it may be too soon to tell whether the new city administration will be more open to public input on such projects than the old one.

The nature and size of the Manhattan West public space came up at two recent public hearings. Chelsea’s Community Board 4 conditionally approved Brookfield Properties’ expanded plan for open space access and affordable housing at the Manhattan West development on February 5.

And on February 19, the City Planning Commission held a public hearing on Brookfield’s proposed zoning amendment—expanding the 1.3 acres of public space in the project to more than 2 acres. The open space plan will need approval from the Commission and the City Council before Brookfield can move forward.

At the earlier community board meeting, Brookfield promised a nice look to the space, which, it said, “will be extensively landscaped with both trees and planted areas, and have fixed and moveable seating and tables and other amenities.”

The board gave its conditional support to the plan but encouraged Brookfield to make several changes, saying increased public space “should not be expanded solely to provide access corridors to retail venues” and should instead “be driven by a desire to create a respite from commerce, an inviting refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.”

Board Members urged the developers to create a space similar to the Winter Garden Atrium at the World Financial Center. Among their recommendations, the board asked for the open space to be open 24 hours a day.

The question of 24-hour access was also a persistent concern among speakers at the City Planning Commission, including members of Community Board 4.

“The board fully understands the necessity of closing public access areas for emergencies or repairs,” said Jean-Daniel Noland, chair of Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton land use and zoning committee for Community Board 4. “But we do not believe that outside of these contingencies, open public access in our district, in the heart of a 24-hour city, should be closed to the people of New York.”

Michael Sandler, representing the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, agreed with Nolan on 24-hour access andEvan Swarztrauber, a representative from state assembly member Richard Gottfried’s office, echoed those concerns.

Commission member Anna Hayes Levin, however, described the hours of the public space as “generous.” Commission members were not available for comment after the hearing. A City Planning Commission spokesperson did respond by email on behalf of Weisbrod, but said he could not comment on the Manhattan West proposal as Weisbrod has not yet begun his work on the commission.

The Manhattan West development was approved in 2010. It will be a 5,400,000-square-foot site, with two office buildings on the northeast and southeast corners, a residential on the southwest corner, and mixed-used building with an office, a hotel and retail on the northwest portion.

The $4.5 billion project will be built on a platform over the West Side Yard along Ninth Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets. It is one block away from Hudson Yards, Michael Bloomberg’s biggest development initiative. Ten Hudson Yards, the first building in that project broke ground in December 2012.

In addition to the 20% of affordable units in the 800,000 square-foot residential building, the Community Board asked Brookfield for “a restrictive declaration” to use the inclusionary housing mechanism to assure the 20% would be permanently affordable.

For some residents however, the proposed changes were not significant enough  “These guys come in here with their suits and their snobby attitudes. What is this? This is Chelsea, not the Upper East Side!” said one angry resident, Kalliopi Giannatos, after the developers presented their amended project. “This is insulting for Chelsea,” she said, “I think they should provide more open space.”

Steve Schoepke, another Chelsea resident, pointed out how Brookfield’s open space was being built between the towers and not on the riverside. “They’re selling the exclusivity of the view,” he said.

A representative from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) present at the community board also expressed concerns over the project. “FIT continues to have doubts on safety, design and accessibility of the project,” said the representative, reminding the audience that thousands of students live in a dorm across from the site.

Christine Berthet, chair of community board 4, pointed out that the board’s power to make changes is limited. It will be up to the City Planning Commission and the City Council to decide whether or not to consider the community board’s recommendations.