Myopic and Destructive, the Empire Station Complex is Simply Wrong

Screenshot from the Vornado website by CCNews

BY JOHN MUDD, PRESIDENT, MIDTOWN SOUTH COMMUNITY COUNCIL | We’re a traumatized nation being held hostage by an economic system that fails to deliver basic human principles. Healthcare, economic opportunities, education, equitable justice, housing, and basic dignity are continually undermined, threatening public welfare.

Close to home (and cutting to the bone) here in NYC, this self-interest and public disinterest is undeniable—starting with former NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s 2008 rezoning failure of Midtown, which allowed the over-saturation of hotels, squashed tenement buildings, and worsened the homeless and housing crisis. And now we have the equally myopic and destructive Empire Station Complex (ESC) development plan, which is eager to bring more commercial property rentals to an already overly commercialized mecca.

This, in addition to considering:

The pandemic has upended America’s commercial property sector. In cities across the country, skyscrapers are dark, shopping centers are shuttered and restaurants have been relegated to takeout service. Social-distancing measures have redefined workplaces and accelerated the trend of telecommuting. The $16 trillion commercial property sector is being stressed in ways not seen since the Great Recession of 2008.New York Times, March 3, 2021

And if that isn’t enough to illustrate the absurdity of decadence that has befallen this city, we need only look toward the tax break and city planning folly that is Hudson Yards—with its stairway to death of an “art” project called the Vessel for evidence. (The Vessel remains closed since July 2021, when a 14-year-old boy used it to jump to his death—the fourth suicide since its inception).

We know the Hudson Yards development didn’t go too well, at least not from the public’s perspective: The project “hit hurdles commonly associated with mega-projects, including revenue shortfalls, cost overruns and spillovers, as well as revenue lost to tax breaks,” according to The New School, Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. No worries, though, when the long-suffering public serves as the fallback to the shortcomings of government and private partnerships!

The artistic and iconic Gimbel’s Bridge, seen above on W. 32nd St., would be sacrificed to make way for 10 new nondescript towers. | Photo by CCNews

It’s ludicrous to try and impose another business district on this island already bloated with sweetheart deals that fail to deliver on their promise of payback and then some—especially since Hudson Yards not only provided us with a peek into our dismal futures, but it cost the taxpayers 2.2 billion dollars. Yet, here we are…

“It has been a plan that the city has had for many years to try to really create Midtown as a river-to-river central business district and this [Empire Station Complex] is kind of the last piece in that puzzle,” said ESC’s spokesperson Holly Leicht during the CB4 and CB5 July 2021 Forum.

I’ll wager that most of the public is not chomping at the bit for a plan that destroys the Midtown South of Manhattan and turns the whole of it into a business district in order to fulfill some developer’s profit-driven vision of a river-to-river skyline of shooting homogenized glass towers.

And more conclusively…

… average citizens’ preferences continue to have essentially zero estimated impact upon policy change, while economic elites are still estimated to have a very large, positive, independent impact. —Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, September 2014

Through all the careful planning, calculations, drafts, and discussions—now decades in development—housing was never considered, except to demolish and make way for more commercial properties. But in response to an outpouring of concern during a July 2020 public meeting, ESC’s spokesperson Holly Leicht said, “We began looking at residential alternatives as opposed to a fully commercial project, which is now part of our project going forward.” But only 30 percent of the 1,800 mixed income units proposed are marked as “permanently affordable” that provides minimal if any housing for the median- to low-income wage-earner.

However the plan is dressed up for the public’s sake, mega-developer Vornado is driving the plan to oversaturate our city with commercial spaces, squash affordable housing, and extract wealth for themselves. The importance of stopping this sweeping plan to develop a river-to-river commercial district cannot be expressed deeply enough. We’re already a cost-burdened society, with rising mental and physical health problems, sprinting towards instability, inequality, and social unrest. The cooked-up schemes of this private public partnership will further drain tax dollars, diminish social services, and widen inequality.

This does not have to be the ending to this story. Imagine a drive toward equity rather than simply amassing wealth for the sake of power. We can find that equity by rethinking our policies toward supporting people over corporate nihilism.

Midtown South Community Council strives to dismantle the causes of homelessness by building an equitable, just, and sustainable social infrastructure to restore dignity, health, and housing for all. We, along with our partnerships, are reimagining a city where homelessness and poverty are eradicated.

During monthly meetings and through shared information from our partnerships with city agencies, government officials, professionals, homeless services, nonprofits, the public, and others, the flaws and fixes of the homeless and housing crisis are never more revealed. Results of these meetings are partly documented in our Homeless and Housing Study, Healthcare Access & Coordination For the Homeless, The Intersection Between Health and Homelessness, The Current State of Homelessness and How to Resolve it, Adaptive Reuse: Hotels to Housing, and Homeless and Housing meetings.

The city has a history of failing its people. A basic understanding of this will make clear who’s to gain and lose from ESC’s economic scam. There are several forums, produced by a coalition of nonprofits led by Alliance for Human Scale City and ReThinkNYC, detailing better options for our city with the public’s interest in mind.

Layla Law-Gisiko, at a Dec. 2, 2021 emergency full board meeting of Community Board 5, whose coverage area includes 90% of the proposed ESC project. | Screenshot by CCNews

At a Dec. 2, 2021 emergency full board meeting of Community Board 5 (CB5), Layla Law-Gisiko (chair of CB5’s Land Use, Housing & Zoning committee) did a deep dive into the particulars and pitfalls, leading to the Board’s unanimous vote against ESC’s plan (Community Board 4 vote followed in similar fashion). Her well-researched study will erase any doubt as to the real costs of ESC’s plan, if it ever sees the light of day. The findings are spot on. To see the presentation, click here and advance to the 37-minute mark.

We can no longer allow the abuses or blame to be put on the already marginalized public, knowing that our economic systems have failed to deliver even the most basic human principles for a healthy society. The only pathway to a quality of life for any of us is to procure a quality of life for all of us.



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