Brewer challenges de Blasio on NYCHA plans

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer plans to take legal action if Mayor Bill de Blasio attempts to unilaterally waive the zoning requirements for a planned tower on a Yorkville public housing campus, rather than subjecting the project to a public land use review. Image: NYCHA
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer vows legal action if city allows private development on NYCHA land without subjecting project to public land use review
By Michael Garofalo

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is gearing up for a potential legal showdown with Mayor Bill de Blasio over the need for public input on the controversial first project of the mayor’s citywide initiative to raise revenue for the ailing New York City Housing Authority by selling rights for private development on public land.

At issue is the mayor’s plan to allow Fetner Properties to build a 500-foot tower on the grounds of Holmes Towers, an Upper East Side public housing development, without subjecting the project to the city’s extensive Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP.

In a Feb. 20 letter to de Blasio, Brewer signaled her intent to take legal action if the mayor attempts to avoid ULURP and effectively preclude formal public input by granting zoning waivers to the project.

Fetner Properties’ planned 500-foot tower, which would sit directly between the two existing 25-story buildings of the Holmes Towers campus at East 92nd Street and First Avenue, would not adhere to zoning requirements governing open space, building spacing and setbacks.

Brewer objects to the administration’s planned use of a mechanism known as a mayoral zoning override to waive these restrictions. She argues that the project is instead subject to ULURP, which the City Charter requires for “Housing and urban renewal plans and projects pursuant to city, state and federal housing laws.”

“Given that the [New York City Housing Authority] campuses are quite clearly ‘projects pursuant to city, state, and federal housing laws,’ the use of land that is within a NYCHA campus requires review by the Community Board, Borough President, and City Council pursuant to ULURP,” Brewer’s letter reads.

“If the administration does not proceed accordingly, I am prepared to challenge what I believe to be improper action by pursuing appropriate legal remedies,” the letter continues.

The Fetner project is part of the city’s plan to raise funds for NYCHA by selling rights for so-called “infill” development on NYCHA land. In exchange for its 99-year lease at Holmes Towers, Fetner will contribute $25 million to NYCHA, which has almost $32 billion in unfunded five-year capital needs. Holmes Towers alone has nearly $59 million in capital needs.

Half of the new building’s 339 residential units will be market rate and half will be publicly subsidized affordable housing.

According to Brewer, the project will receive $60 million in public subsidies—a figure well in excess of the funds it will generate for NYCHA. “Full public review will allow a complete airing of the costs and benefits to the City as a whole and the surrounding community,” Brewer wrote.

“We do not see ULURP as a way to defeat infill; rather we see it as a way to improve infill,” she continued. “In the absence of subjecting infill projects to ULURP, we disengage from the very communities we claim to be trying to assist, and risk creating situations in which we are hastening the gentrification that may lead to displacement. Thoughtful review, opportunity to comment, and genuine negotiations will result in projects more beneficial to all.”

Mayoral spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie did not address Brewer’s letter in an emailed statement. “We are using every tool in our arsenal to reverse decades of federal divestment in NYCHA,” Lapeyrolerie wrote. “This project will raise $25 million in critical repairs for Holmes Residents (sic).”