The New York City Council voted on Tuesday to approve a zoning change for the re-development of the New York Blood Center on the Upper East Side, ignoring the wishes of the local council member who vehemently opposed the project.
The 43-to-5 vote paves the way for the construction of a $750 million, 16-story center on East 67th Street between First and Second Avenues in an area exclusively zoned for seven stories max. The neighborhood is represented by Councilmember Ben Kallos, who spent years attempting to convince members that the new center’s height should be scaled back. Opponents of the project said the high-rise would also cast shadows on nearby St. Catherine’s Park.
The vote represents a rare instance in which members declined to defer to a member whose district would be impacted by a project that comes before the council.
Under the plan, the Blood Center will team up with Longfellow Real Estate Partners to demolish its existing three-story building for a high-rise research hub where a third of the tower will be dedicated to the center’s research on sickle cell disease. The rest of the floors will be set aside for other operations devoted to the life sciences.
The Blood Centers’ banks hold roughly 80% of the city’s blood supply. It has been in the community since 1964, with talk of upgrading the facility for years. On top of providing $10 million to the local school and community garden through a non-legally binding letter, the Blood Center project is expected to create an unspecified number of construction jobs.
The project garnered support from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said it was key to making New York City the life sciences capital of the world. City Council members, including Speaker Corey Johnson, were also convinced of the center’s potential. Under the plan, the Blood Center would benefit from city and state tax breaks of at least $450 million over the next 25 years.
In a four-minute speech ahead of the vote, Kallos said he and his community were always willing to approve the Blood Center, but objected to its height and the history of Longfellow’s penchant for grandiose buildings with “curated amenities” that include “spa treatment and yoga to free-flowing beer and wine.”
Executives for the Blood Center were undeterred by Kallos’ opposition, and instead reportedly spent $1.6 million since 2016 to lobby members of the council, including Councilmember Keith Powers, whose district abuts Kallos’ district. The group also reached out to Bronx Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, chair of the Land Use Committee, and members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus. All approved of the plan.
“The Blood Center rezoning is not just a project that affects New York City,” Salamanca Jr. said before casting his vote. “The project we’re being asked to vote on today is not a hyperlocal housing project that will bring market-rate units to a neighborhood, or even an over-glorified office tower as some have called it. This is a project that strikes a balance between the concerns of the surrounding community relating to shadows and building heights while also having the potential to save the lives of your neighbors, your friends, your family members, and maybe even you one day.”
But Kallos insisted the project had de Blasio’s backing because the law firm hired by the Blood Center, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, is the same group that represented de Blasio when he was accused of violating campaign finance laws in July of 2016 through a nonprofit he created to advance his political causes. De Blasio reportedly owes the firm $300,000, prompting Kallos to accuse de Blasio of pay-to-play.
De Blasio said that his support for the project had nothing to do with what he owes the firm.
“It's a specious claim, it’s just not accurate. I care about the Blood Center because I care about the Blood Center and I care about life sciences, I've been talking about for years,” de Blasio told host Errol Louis on Spectrum NY1’s “Inside City Hall” on Monday. “We put out a plan years ago. I didn't even know who their representation was, honestly, until very late in this process. So, it had nothing to do with it. This is a project that makes sense for New York City. That's what's motivating.”
A spokesperson for the Blood Center characterized the pay-to-play accusation as baseless, saying the law firm’s “record speaks for itself.”
“This is just another in a parade of desperate attempts by opponents to distract from the project's broad support and obvious benefits,” the spokesperson said.
Members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, which supported the project for potentially advancing sickle cell disease research, a condition that vastly impacts the Black community, released a statement following an accusation that the chair of the caucus was attempting to sell his vote in exchange for $500,000 in donations to local community groups.
The matter was referred to the Department of Investigation. A spokesperson told WNYC/Gothamist that the agency is aware of the matter but declined to elaborate further.
A spokesperson for the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus called the accusation a “final act of desperation that will bring a disgraceful end to a debate in which we called for civility and compromise.”
At the hearing, Councilmember Daneek Miller, co-chair of the caucus, called Kallos’ comments opposing the project “despicable.”
“I am saddened to see that because once again he's blinded by the enclaves of privilege, that he’s failed to see that this project benefits the greater good. He’s failed to see the value of the project; he’s failed to see his task as a legislator to serve those who are marginalized,” he said.
Those who voted against the rezoning along with Kallos expressed it as a matter of principle when it comes to member deference. They included Brooklyn Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who defended Kallos’ reservations about the height of the project and the fact that there is no legally-binding agreement on a $10 million pot of funds for the local school.
“The thresholds that Ben is talking about I think are reasonable,” Menchaca said moments before he voted. “That has to mean something.”
The council also passed a massive rezoning plan for the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus, which will usher in 3,000 units of affordable housing in the coming years, a dedicated $200 million pot of funds for renovations in the neighborhood’s public housing units, and preservation of five historic buildings.