Googles New HQ Opens with Only a Fraction of Nearby Low Cost Housing Promised by Pols

City Council votes to approve tax breaks for 175 apartments for the elderly, just a fraction of the 500 low-cost apartments local leaders promised a decade ago for the tony spot on Hudson River Park. [This article originally appeared May 14 in THE CITY, a not for profit news site covering New York City.]

| 15 May 2024 | 03:48

By Samantha Maldonado

Nearly a decade ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration brokered a deal to redevelop the derelict St. John’s Terminal, a historic train shed on the west side of Manhattan. City Hall touted a resulting $100 million plan to save nearby Pier 40 in Hudson River Park and an expected 1,600 new apartments, with almost 500 of those affordable—a “win-win,” in de Blasio’s words.

Now, housing is coming, just a lot less of it than publicized.

Last month, the City Council approved a tax break for 175 affordable apartments for seniors on a slice of the terminal property north of Houston Street. A 130-unit, market-rate condo building is in the works next door, with completion expected in 2026. That amounts to just a fraction of the total housing promised.

So what happened to the rest of the apartments? Ultimately, the developers — initially Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital Group — had no obligation to build them. Today, St. John’s Terminal is home to Google, which purchased the critically acclaimed rebuilt structure for about $2 billion in 2022, exercising a purchase option it had acquired from Oxford Properties Group three years earlier.

Members of the local community board who signed off on the affordable housing deal first got wind of the course change in 2016. Even now, they express both rage and resignation at the outcome.

“It’s a great tenant. I’m sure they’ll help revive the neighborhood,” said Jeannine Kiely, a member of Manhattan Community Board 2, speaking of Google. But this was not the result she thought she was working toward. “It’s really that the community was sold a rezoning for affordable housing and market-rate housing and instead it was sort of a bait and switch.”

Though dismayed that what her community had understood to happen did not come to fruition, Kiely was pleased with the repairs to Pier 40, where her kids — now teens — often played soccer and baseball. The Pier 40 funds came as a result of the redevelopment process.

Councilmember Erik Bottcher, who now represents the district, pointed out the other benefits that came as a result of the process, too, including the expansion of a historic district and an elevator at the Spring Street subway station.

“I think everyone was disappointed that the developers opted to build what they could have built anyway without the rezoning,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that ULURP, there would still be a new office building there and Pier 40 would be sinking into the river.”

It’s not uncommon for affordable housing to disappear from projects in proposed rezonings. Last year, Gothamist found that at least 17 plans submitted to the city Department of City Planning were either tossed or shrunk, heading off some 2,600 units of affordable housing.

But in those instances, objections from local City Council members helped derail the projects. In the case of St. John’s Terminal, the local Council member, Corey Johnson, advocated for the housing and expressed concern when the developers began backing away. “I don’t want any bait and switch,” he said in 2016.

The architect for the project at that time described to the City Council an approach to the south part of the redevelopment area that would “retain the existing St. John’s Terminal building and its existing footprint and build on top of that completely within the as-of-right zoning envelope.”

Johnson complained that the plan was different from what had been negotiated but emphasized Pier 40 needed the money. (Johnson declined to comment for this story.)

Though the land use counsel for the developers at the time said that approach was “not the preferred course of action,” it ultimately bore out.

By the fall of 2018, the site’s fate was sealed.

Crain’s reported that October that the St. John’s Terminal project would consist mostly of office space. A month later, with the controversial Amazon HQ2 deal pending for Long Island City, Google announced it planned to buy or lease the space. In December 2018, Oxford Properties Group acquired the south site, and months later Google signed its option to buy.

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The ambitious design for Google’s office repurposed the shell of the old St. John’s Terminal building — which once stored trains — and added a new glassy structure on top. The project’s unusual design helped make it eligible for hefty tax breaks (separate from those the Council recently approved), but when Google announced its intention to buy, the company indicated it would not pursue them. The tech giant moved in its workers earlier this year.

Google declined to comment for this story.

Tobi Bergman, a former member of Manhattan’s Community Board 2 who was closely involved with negotiating the deal, said that the changes around the area “have been very beneficial to this neighborhood and the city.” But he lamented the loss of affordable housing.

“The community board basically got scammed,” Bergman said. “For a lot of people, what sold them on the zoning change was the affordable housing.”

The forthcoming senior affordable housing will proceed as was originally planned on the north side of the site, which took up about a block between West Street and Washington Street, just south of Clarkson Street.

David Gruber, a longtime member of the community board, said he appreciated the senior affordable housing, but also expressed frustration at the outcome.

“We’re often accused of being NIMBY [not in my backyard] because Community Board 2 doesn’t have NYCHA housing and this and that, our median income is very high in the Village, but we have advocated and fought for affordable housing. It was frustrating, no question about it,” said Gruber. “We put a lot of thoughtful, erudite time into creating a new city there, not quite as big as Battery Park City, but a little city on the Hudson.”

“We put a lot of thoughtful, erudite time into creating a new city there, not quite as big as Battery Park City, but a little city on the Hudson.” David Gruber, board member, Community Board 2