What’s the deal with the New York Blood Center?

A proposal for a high rise research facility on the Upper East Side may see the City Council buck member deference.

In these final days of Speaker Corey Johnson’s tenure, a land-use drama is playing out that’s upending city hall politics as usual.

In these final days of Speaker Corey Johnson’s tenure, a land-use drama is playing out that’s upending city hall politics as usual. John McCarten/New York City Council

Operators of the New York Blood Center want to knock down its dated facility located on East 67th Street on the Upper East Side, replacing it with a state-of-the-art facility that would also house lab space that could be leased out to other life sciences companies. But to do that, the joint project with Boston-based real estate group Longfellow required an upzoning from the city. 

Some neighborhood groups and local elected officials – including Rep. Carolyn Maloney and state Sen. Liz Krueger – opposed the project,because of the impact the sizable office building could have on the mostly residential area. Complaints included that the tower would cast a shadow on a nearby school complex and park, and bring more commercial traffic to the sidestreet. But the most important thumbs down came from New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, whose district includes the center. Due to a City Council custom known as member deference, where the rest of the Council follows the local members’ lead on land use issues, that would typically mean the project is doomed. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here, as the project cleared two important procedural hurdles on Wednesday, despite Kallos’ objections. 

In these final days of Speaker Corey Johnson’s tenure, a land-use drama is playing out that’s upending city hall politics as usual. Here’s the rundown, updated Wednesday Nov. 10.

What is the New York Blood Center?

 A nonprofit that raked in nearly $500 million in its last reported fiscal year, the New York Blood Center provides as much as 90% of the city’s blood supplies, according to reporting from Crain’s New York Business. The company’s reach goes beyond the city, serving 17 states, while also touting a genomics lab, a research institute and clinical-services programs. 

What’s being proposed?

The New York Blood Center, Inc. is looking to revamp its facility on East 67th Street into a nearly 600,000 square-foot life sciences lab. According to the application, the current facility, which had been a three-story trade school built in 1930, is antiquated. A third of the tower would go to the Blood Center, while the rest would be under Longfellow’s purview, and they would lease spaces to life science organizations. While the rezoning also consists of two residential buildings that are not owned by Blood Center, those buildings are not expected to be redeveloped, according to the city’s application.

The sticking point, however, is the proposed height of the new facility, with a tower that’ll reach 276 feet. The concern of those against the project is that it would cast a shadow. Back when the city’s planning department studied the building at its former proposed height of 334 feet, the city found that St. Catherine’s Park would receive three to four hours of new incremental shadows during the spring, summer and fall, “thereby causing a significant adverse shadow impact to the use of the park in the late afternoons in those seasons.” (Update: on Wednesday, the project was negotiated down to 218 feet at the top of the street wall, reaching up to 233 feet including mechanical space.)

Who’s for it?

Council Member Rafael Salamanca is for the rezoning, and as the chair of the land use committee, that has significant implications. Salamanca is breaking with the tradition of member deference by disagreeing with Kallos. “It’s hard to tell a nonprofit that saves lives, to say no to them, when they’re trying to increase their capacity and their research for New Yorkers,” Salamanca told Politico. “It’s hard to tell them no when your only argument is you’re concerned about the shadows in your community.” 

Along with Salamanca, the council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus voiced it’s support for the rezoning, another sign that the land use chair is likely to be joined by others and bypass member deference. In a statement posted on Twitter, the caucus said that the expansion of the Blood Center will yield jobs, revenue and technological advances that could help uplift historically underserved communities. “We urge all of the stakeholders involved in the negotiations over the proposal to act in good faith, operate from the baseline of understanding from which these discussions originated and find a way to get to a YES,” the caucus tweeted.

The de Blasio administration also favors the project. Health commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi has submitted testimony in favor of the project and Vicki Been, the city’s deputy mayor for housing and urban development, has spoken to legislators to back the rezoning, according to the New York Post. The Post wrote that two firms working on the Blood Center rezoning, Kramer Levin law firm and public relations firm BerlinRosen, have been connected to de Blasio in the past.

Against it?

 Kallos has railed against the project, saying the proposal has steamrolled the community. 

“I’ve never seen a land use process anywhere in the city of New York where the developer ignored the community to this extent, and just told the community to go F themselves,” said Kallos as reported by Upper East Blog Our Town. “It’s just inappropriate. It’s horrible. And I’ve never seen anything like this. This is not how community-driven planning works. This is how profit-driven planning works.”

Kallos wasn’t alone. Four Manhattan legislators, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, state Sen. Liz Krueger, Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who also opposed the project in the city’s land use review process, penned a letter expressing their opposition to the project as it stood on Nov. 4, urging the City Council to reject the developer’s “all or nothing approach.” 

But following negotiations with Johnson on Wednesday, in which the proposed building’s height was reduced and more funding was arranged for the nearby school and park, at least one changed their mind. Brewer and City Council Member Keith Powers, who represents a district half a block away from the lot in question, both signed on in support

Last-ditch effort against the project

A council subcommittee was slated to have a hearing on the rezoning on Tuesday. That was derailed, however, as a condominium board of one the neighboring buildings filed an objection to the the City Planning Commission’s approval of the rezoning (The City Planning Commission approved it in September). Their little-used objection may trigger a procedure in the City Charter requiring a three-fourths vote, or 39 of the 51 council members, to approve the project.That gave hope to Kallos, who told Patch on Monday that he doesn’t believe the council will get the votes necessary to pass the project over his objections. 

What’s next? 

The City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Committee on Land Use approved the updated, shortened proposal on Nov. 10, apparently bucking member deference for what some observers say is the first time in more than a decade. Because of the alteration, the rezoning proposal has been kicked back to the City Planning Commission. It’s expected to be brought up for a vote before the full City Council at the next stated meeting on Nov. 23.