The City Council, brushing aside the objections of its member from the Upper East Side, overwhelmingly approved the New York Blood Center’s plan for a 233-foot life sciences office tower on the site of its current headquarters on 67th Street midway between First and Second Avenues.
“Let’s not let shadows overshadow the health of New Yorkers,” said the chair of the land use committee, Rafael Salamanca Jr., Democrat of the South Bronx.
Salamanca was one of the key figures in a deal that cut 100 feet off the proposed tower, which still outraged the neighborhood but won strong support from construction unions, as well as Black and Latino council members who spoke passionately about the medical research the project would support.
Shortly before the vote, Ben Kallos, the council member from the Upper East Side, appealed to his colleagues not to abandon him.
He told them the fight was not at all about the city’s blood supply or medical research but about two other issues: “How high should the center’s for-profit partner Longfellow Development’s commercial offices tower over a residential neighborhood, and member deference.”
Kallos said he would have supported the deal if the Blood Center’s developer, Longfellow Real Estate Partners, had agreed to his proposal to lower the “ultra luxury double height ceilings” in the commercial tower, and thus the overall height. More than half the overall height of the building comes from these extra-high ceilings, Kallos said
Under the deal, Longfellow would build the new tower, give the lower floors to the Blood Center and lease out the rest to life sciences companies.
“This generous offer,” Kallos told the council of his proposal, “was rejected because Longfellow wanted more valuable commercial space and because the mayor and special interested want to prove a point. Local council members don’t matter anymore and can no longer represent their communities.”
He warned that “approval from the full council would create a blueprint for deep pocket developers to get whatever they want.”
The council then voted 43 to 5 to support the project.
Mayor Bill de Blasio strongly supports the project as part of his plan to expand New York’s role as a biotech and life sciences hub.
One clear thread in the voting was the strong support from African American and Latino members of the council.
“The Black community leads every health disparity known to man,” explained Robert Cornegy, Democrat from Bedford Stuyvesant. “It is incumbent upon us to make bold steps toward research and development that will change the outcomes in minority communities across the city.”
Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who also represents central Brooklyn, said she was casting her vote for the Blood Center project “on behalf of my little cousin who died in 2018 at the age of 26 because of complications related to his sickle cell. On behalf of my close friend Shaun Brooks who died in the summer of 2019 at the age of 43 because of complications due to his sickle cell. And all of the individuals who never had an opportunity to talk about their struggles with sickle cell. My vote today is on behalf of them because of the lack of research and funding and education again related to sickle cell.”
In the days before the vote, the opponents had brought a last-ditch lawsuit to force the council to recognize a little used clause of the city charter that requires a three-fourths majority, or 39 votes, to approve a rezoning when directly affected neighbors object.
In this case, the condominium apartment building directly next door filed such a protest.
The judge declined to issue a restraining order before the vote, but said the complainants could return after.
In the event, they fell short of the 12 votes they would have needed to block the project under the three-fourths rule.
“We Depend on Them”
It was the first time in at least a decade that the council had overridden the wishes of a local member. Four other council members voted against the project: Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn), Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn), Bob Holden (D-Queens) and the Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-The Bronx.).
De Blasio thanked the 43 members of the council who supported the project. “We depend on the Blood Center,” the mayor said. “We depend on them for research. We depend on them to make sure we’re building a healthier tomorrow. Here’s an organization that needed a sustainable home for the future. Because of the action of the City Council they’ll now have that. Here’s an organization that is going to ensure in this important new space that tremendous life sciences innovations occur.”
The executive vice president and chief of staff of the Blood Center, Rob Purvis, said the new headquarters and tower fit the notion of New York as “a global public health hub.”
“Our vision for a state-of-the-art life science facility will ensure the nonprofit Blood Center continues to provide safe, affordable blood services to the region’s hospitals and enable the center to significantly expand its life-saving research on COVID-19 and blood-related diseases in collaboration with institutions and biotechnology partners all under the same roof,” Purvis added.
But one of the leading opposition groups dismissed this.
“It is unfortunate that political pressures prevailed over the common sense facts of the project,” said the group, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. “This was never about the ability of the Blood Center to continue its work. It was about the dangerous precedent of granting a radical rezoning of a typical residential block to a for-profit developer, using a neighborhood nonprofit as a Trojan horse.”
The Blood Center says it plans to begin work on the project in the new year.