The Real Deal New York

NYC’s NIMBY posse

A roundup of the city’s most influential neighborhood organizations fighting developers

November 01, 2012
By Leigh Kamping-Carder

New Yorkers are nothing if not opinionated — especially when it comes to their own backyards. Hundreds, if not thousands of New York City block associations, community groups and single-issue nonprofits exist to shape the streetscape and the skyline.

While these groups are sometimes derisively called NIMBYs (short for Not In My Backyard), some have pushed to protect whole swaths of the city, successfully curtailing development projects and swaying public opinion.

This month, The Real Deal rounded up some of the most active and influential neighborhood groups, examining their recent victories and their future plans.

The activity of these groups tends to surface in areas where development is concentrated, with real estate hot spots like Manhattan’s West Side or Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards spurring vociferous advocacy and quieter neighborhoods like the Upper East Side seeing fewer protests, sources said. (Of course, neighborhood additions like a waste transfer station on East 91st Street or a homeless shelter on West 95th Street are bound to inspire classic NIMBYism.)

“The most confrontational situations are going to be in neighborhoods that are undergoing either the most development or the biggest threat from undesirable facilities,” said Ken Fisher, a land-use attorney with the law firm Cozen O’Connor.

Additionally, some projects that were previously lightning rods for protest, such as Hudson Yards, are far enough along now that community opposition is relatively subdued, sources said.

More generally, the slowdown in development since the 2008 market crash has reduced the activity of community groups, sources said.

“The economy has been doing poorly, so development has been sparse, which could explain the recent lack of NIMBY activity,” said Nikolai Fedak, founder of development and architecture blog New York YIMBY, which stands for “Yes In My Backyard.” “Bloomberg’s pro-growth stance has also blunted NIMBY power,” Fedak said.

The most active YIMBY advocacy has come from groups that push for development-friendly amenities, such as parks, with the most notable example being the Friends of the High Line’s push for the elevated park in West Chelsea, experts said.

Additionally, business improvement districts have taken on some of the traditional roles of community nonprofits in commercial neighborhoods — like the Financial District and Downtown Brooklyn — where new residents are putting down roots, Fisher said.

These nonprofits, which are funded through assessments on property owners, are trying to enlist newcomers as a pro-development constituency, arguing that density will lead to better retail options and higher property values, he said.

At the same time, many community groups are preparing for an eventful last year of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term, as developers push for city approvals from this pro-development administration, sources said.

“No doubt we will be kept very busy,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, a forceful voice in the approval process for numerous neighborhood developments. “There may well be things that come up in the next few months that we had no idea of and did not anticipate, but we’re always at the ready.”

From left: Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation speaking at a rally protesting NYU’s expansion, Develop Don’t Destroy’s Daniel Goldstein and Simeon Bankoff, head of the Historic Districts Council.

The NIMBYs

 

Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

Headquarters: East Village

Staff: Six full-time

Annual budget: $700,000

Founded: 1980

Since 1980, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has operated as an outspoken defender of the East and West Village. In the last year, however, the group has taken unprecedented steps to advance its mission.

In July, executive director Andrew Berman, already a familiar face at public hearings, registered as a lobbyist with the city along with five of his colleagues, as TRD reported. And in late September, the group filed its first lawsuit, seeking to overturn city and state approvals for New York University’s 1.9 million-square-foot expansion.

“We’ve never sued over anything before, but this, we felt, was just so egregious and so important to the future of our neighborhood that we felt it was essential,” Berman said.

The organization (along with a host of faculty members, residents and other community groups) has hired bulldog law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to litigate their case.

Although the NYU expansion is proceeding (with some size limitations), the Greenwich Village Society achieved a longtime goal last month when a chunk of the East Village became a Historic District. The measure will protect 330 buildings, or about 10 times as many as before, Berman said.

The group is also pushing to establish a Historic District in an area south of Washington Square Park known as the South Village.

The proposal comes as the city is considering rezoning the 20-block area nearby known as Hudson Square. The rezoning, advanced by Hudson Square landlord Trinity Real Estate, would allow for ground-up residential development and 320-foot tall buildings on the avenues, with the aim of creating a 24-hour mixed-use neighborhood.

The Greenwich Village Society is fighting to cap the building heights at 210 feet — a modification supported by the community board — and to landmark a swath of the South Village as a component of the rezoning.

“We don’t want to see a whole bunch of very, very tall towers erected in that area,” Berman said. “We think it would really contradict the character of that neighborhood.”

 

Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn

Headquarters: Atlantic Yards area

Staff: none

Annual budget: minimal

Founded: 2004

In late September, the Barclays Center at Atlantic Yards opened to much fanfare. But Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and other groups wanted to hammer home a message: Developer Forest City Ratner promised jobs and housing along with the basketball.

Develop Don’t Destroy is considered the most visible opponent of the massive project, but cofounder Daniel Goldstein explained that, with the first phase of the development complete, the nonprofit is shifting its focus. “We’re more interested in the longterm macro issues of what’s going to happen with this site,” said Goldstein, who advises other Brooklyn nonprofits and is working on a memoir about Atlantic Yards, but declined to discuss his day job.

Develop Don’t Destroy formed just a few months after Forest City Ratner formally announced its development plans in December 2003. After several homeowners, including Goldstein, realized that the site of the future stadium overlapped with their homes, they formed a nonprofit and hired civil rights attorney Norman Siegel to block the use of eminent domain.

Though the group failed at that effort — Goldstein was evicted in 2010 and received $3 million in compensation — it racked up some impressive victories, including pressuring the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owned the 22-acre site, to request alternative proposals for the land in 2005.

Feeling that the MTA had not sufficiently marketed the request for proposals, Develop Don’t Destroy sent it to dozens of developers, eventually securing a rival $150 million bid from Extell Development Company. That forced Forest City Ratner to double its bid to $100 million.

The group also filed six lawsuits, challenging the use of eminent domain, the soundness of the environmental review and a renegotiated agreement between Forest City Ratner and the MTA.

Though the group met with mixed success in the courts, an appeals court ruled this past June that the developer and the state must conduct an environmental impact study, since the project is now estimated to take 25 years instead of 10. (Forest City Ratner appealed the decision, but New York State’s highest court declined to hear the appeal.)

Today, the group is a streamlined operation: The all-volunteer staff of about four or five is no longer working full-time on the issue, and they have not raised funds in about a year, Goldstein said. (In fiscal year 2009, the group raised about $162,000, according to figures from nonprofit data provider GuideStar.)

Moreover, the group is now focusing on a “political effort” that, in part, hinges on the environmental review. Since the review requires studying alternatives to Forest City Ratner’s plan, and since the company has not closed on all of the land at Atlantic Yards, Develop Don’t Destroy is hoping to persuade state officials to renegotiate their development agreement with the company.

The goal is to have the state issue RFPs for the remainder of the site and to have multiple developers finish Atlantic Yards.

“The struggle over the rest of the site, and what happens there, is really the long-term, ongoing struggle that our group … and other groups are going to have to deal with for a very long time,” Goldstein said.

 

From left: Sean Sweeney, head of the Soho Alliance; West End Preservation Society founder Richard Emery; Joshua David and Robert Hammond, co-founders of Friends of the High Line; and Elizabeth Berger, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York.

Historic Districts Council Headquarters: East Village

Staff: five full-time, one part-time

Annual budget: $450,000

Founded: 1971 (became an independent group in 1986)

The Historic Districts Council is the only group in the city that reviews every public proposal affecting landmarked properties — from the landlord who wants to install an air-conditioning system to the proposed rezoning of Midtown East.

All told, that’s about 400 to 500 projects reviewed annually, said Simeon Bankoff, the nonprofit’s executive director, estimating that the organization testifies in about 30 percent of them. Additionally, the HDC acts as a watchdog for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, monitoring how it writes and enforces regulations.

Although the organization’s clout with the LPC is difficult to measure, the group is considered an active advocate for preservation throughout the five boroughs.

“I’d say that we have a batting average in the mid-to-high 200s,” Bankoff said. “Our comments often find some purchase and are seldom completely ignored, but other than that, it’s hard to specifically quantify.”

The group’s mission came to the forefront in May, when the city council’s land-use committee began reviewing legislation that would revamp the way the LPC operates.

The package of bills would impose deadlines on when the LPC must respond to requests for evaluation (within 180 days) and rule on historic designations (within 33 months), as well as require the City Planning Commission to weigh in on how a landmark designation would affect a property’s development potential, among other things.

The Real Estate Board of New York has come out in support of those measures.

But Bankoff argued that the new policies would overwhelm the LPC’s resources. (Additional funding is not part of the legislation.) Moreover, the strict time line could scuttle historic designations that take too long to approve, even if they have merit, he said.

The city council has not yet scheduled a vote on the bills.

Additionally, the HDC is closely monitoring the proposed rezoning of Midtown East, unveiled in July, which would allow developers to build taller office towers in a 74-block area. In exchange, builders would have to contribute to a fund earmarked for neighborhood improvements.

The HDC hopes to submit a list of buildings within the zone that it believes deserve landmark protections. “We hope to preserve some of the lower-rise buildings of significance — architectural and cultural significance,” Bankoff said.

 

Soho Alliance

Headquarters: Soho

Staff: one full-time

Annual budget: $10,000

Founded: 1994

The Soho Alliance generated headlines with its fight against Trump Soho, the 46-story condominium hotel tower developed by the Trump Organization, the Bayrock Group and the Sapir Organization. In 2008, however, a state court rejected the group’s attempt to revoke the project’s building permit.

But the Soho Alliance has continued to wield its influence in the community, whether by convincing the Landmarks Commission to shrink developer Jared Kushner’s proposed penthouse atop the Puck Building at 295 Lafayette Street or throwing support behind political candidates.

The Soho Journal, a semiannual magazine and website, recently called Sean Sweeney, the group’s director, one of the people “who candidates must see if they wish to gain traction with Downtown voters.”

The Alliance’s political arm, the Downtown Independent Democrats, has been closely involved in local politics since the 1970s. In the coming months, Sweeney and other DID members will meet with about 20 city candidates to determine who to endorse. The group also puts out a “very serious” voter’s guide, Sweeney said.

But the organization’s biggest current fight is combating the creation of a Soho business improvement district along Broadway from Canal to Houston streets. The Soho Alliance has said the BID will increase costs for local businesses and add traffic to already congested streets and sidewalks.

“Soho doesn’t need a business improvement district,” Sweeney added. “It needs a resident improvement district.”

The City Planning Commission recommended approval of the BID this past January, but the Soho Alliance’s campaign has helped convince state senator Daniel Squadron and Assembly member Deborah Glick to oppose it. The city council held a public hearing on the issue on Oct. 31.

West End Preservation Society

Headquarters: Upper West Side

Staff: three part-time volunteers

Annual budget: less than $5,000

Founded: 2007

The West End Preservation Society was founded in 2007 with the narrow goal of protecting West End Avenue from creeping development. Since then, the group has had some remarkable success.

In 2009, the Society proposed expanding the existing Historic District on West End Avenue to an area reaching from West 70th to West 107th streets.

Last month, the city council unanimously approved the first phase of the plan, known as the Riverside–West End Historic District Extension I, which stretches from West 79th to West 87th streets, in an area between Riverside Drive and Broadway. If fully approved, the district will cover some 800 buildings.

The organization expects the whole district to be approved within the next year, before Bloomberg leaves office, said the group’s founder, Richard Emery.

In the meantime, the Society has turned its attention to promoting the community’s history and culture, with plans to install benches and plaques and to hold walking tours and community events.

“We hope to actually be, in some sense, a conduit to elected officials and other city agencies to solve problems,” Emery said.

A Manhattan litigator, Emery is best known for challenging the legality of New York City’s Board of Estimate, a government agency that made budget and land-use decisions until the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional in 1989.

 

The YIMBYs

Friends of the High Line

Headquarters: Chelsea

Staff: 62

Annual budget: $13 million (2010 figures from Guidestar)

Founded: 1999

The inspiration for the High Line dates back to 1999, when two Chelsea residents, journalist Joshua David and artist Robert Hammond, began efforts to turn the unused rail yards snaking along the West Side of Manhattan into an elevated park.

Now known as Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit they started maintains the High Line and provides more than 90 percent of its operating budget under a license with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

Together with the rezoning of West Chelsea in 2005, their efforts have helped transform the neighborhood.

“Nonprofits focused on benefiting communities and changing city policy can be very influential,” said New York YIMBY’s Fedak. “Friends of the High Line is a great example as they’ve been paramount in converting the High Line into one of the most popular parks globally, boosting all of the Meatpacking [District] and West Chelsea in the process.”

The first portion of the park opened in 2009, and groundbreaking on the third and final portion took place this past September. Friends of the High Line has pledged to raise $20 million of the $90 million needed to finish the park.

But the organization is now embroiled in the controversy over Jamestown Properties’ bid to build a nine-story office tower and 90,000-square-foot hotel atop the Chelsea Market, a converted Nabisco factory that houses retail shops and offices.

Jamestown sought approval for the project through a city program that gives Chelsea developers a larger footprint in exchange for financial and infrastructure contributions to the High Line. Jamestown pledged to build public restrooms for the park and donate almost $16 million to the fund.

The nonprofit has said that the funding from Jamestown is “critical” to make capital repairs in the coming years. At the first city council hearing on the proposal last month, David cautioned that “if the city does not have the funds to meet its obligations, the High Line could fall into disrepair.”

However, other community groups, including the Greenwich Village Society, contend that the addition will destroy the Chelsea Market’s character and increase traffic in the area.

In September, the City Planning Commission approved a modified proposal that limits the building height and blocks the hotel. The commission also urged Jamestown to set aside 30 percent of its High Line contribution to an existing affordable housing fund, which David said his group supported.

The city council is currently reviewing the proposal.

 

Alliance for Downtown New York

Headquarters: Financial District

Staff: 50 full-time

Annual budget: $16.9 million

Founded: 1995

If any group exemplifies the growing influence of business improvement districts on residential neighborhoods, it is the Alliance for Downtown New York, which focuses on attracting and retaining commercial tenants in Lower Manhattan. The neighborhood is home to about 57,000 people, and about 310,000 work there.

“Everything we do is designed to make Lower Manhattan competitive and attractive to investors and tenants,” said the group’s president, Elizabeth Berger, a 30-year resident of the neighborhood.

The city’s largest BID, the Downtown Alliance assesses owners of commercial properties about 18 cents per square foot. Residential property owners are assessed only $1 per lot, and noncommercial owners (such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) do not pay assessments.

The group is currently researching strategies to lure technology firms and start-ups to Lower Manhattan, where about 500 tech firms already operate, Berger said.

Also, two commercial thoroughfares are in the BID’s crosshairs. The Downtown Alliance is working to revitalize a half-mile stretch of Water Street that boasts 19 million square feet of Class A and Class B–plus office space. A significant amount of space will be up for lease within the next five years, according to the Alliance, and the strip is largely quiet on evenings and weekends with few retail and dining options and underused public spaces.

The group released a planning study in 2010, and its vision includes everything from adding street signs and public art to luring retail tenants to rethinking the zoning of the area’s privately owned public spaces, or POPs.

The Downtown Alliance also wants to capitalize on the future of Greenwich South: Once the World Trade Center construction is complete, the north and south halves of Greenwich Street will be joined up again, offering “millions of square feet of latent development potential,” the group said.

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