A Late Push for the Blood Center

A new coalition of labor unions and community groups boosts the argument that opponents want to keep people of color out of the neighborhood

| 10 Sep 2021 | 06:12

Since the New York Blood Center first announced plans to build a 334-foot life sciences hub – dubbed Center East – at its Upper East Side location, opponents of the proposal have often been the loudest voices at the project’s public hearings – decrying the rezoning it would require. But with the proposal now in the latter stages of the land use review process, a new group comprised of labor unions and community groups has formed in hopes of getting the project over the line.

In its first act, the coalition sent a letter to District 5 City Council Member Ben Kallos urging him to vote for the project if it comes before the Council in the coming months. The coalition in their letter has painted the opposition as white and wealthy elite Upper East Siders who are trying to keep people of color out of their neighborhood and are merely hiding behind concerns over the building’s height and the implications of a rezoning.

“Opponents of the project are complaining about the building height, shadows, and how workers and staff from Center East will crowd their nearby park,” the letter reads. “These ‘Not in My Back Yard’ (NIMBY) opponents are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. We can’t help but observe that their real opposition may be to more Black and brown New Yorkers working on the Upper East Side and spending time there.”

The coalition argues that the New Yorkers it represents is a larger and more diverse group than the project’s opponents, and that if built, “Center East has tremendous potential to boost wages and incomes for thousands of New Yorkers in Harlem, the South Bronx, Queensbridge, and other neighborhoods devastated by COVID.”

Representatives from Laborers’ Local 79, Greater New York Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, and The Knowledge House – all of which are represented by this new coalition – have made similar arguments in at prior hearing. Community Voices Heard, a Black-led progressive group that advocates for racial and economic justice in New York, and Urban Upbound, an anti-poverty organization based in Queens, have been folded into the coalition, as well.

Kallos Response

The coalition’s argument that UES residents want to keep Black and brown workers out of the neighborhood has not persuaded Kallos, who has backed opponents of the project and appeared alongside elected leaders and hundreds of community members at a rally against the rezoning effort in May.

“We haven’t received any evidence whatsoever that a commercial biotech office tower would somehow be occupied by workers of color. In fact, what we’ve seen from other biotech spaces is that the workers are largely white,” Kallos previously told Our Town. He has floated other locations for the project, including an open lot in East Harlem.

The community opposition has also taken great offense to the coalition’s argument when it was made at a hearing hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Instead, opponents have maintained that their issues concern the height of the building and the residential to commercial zoning it would require; the new afternoon shadows the tower would cast on the nearby St. Catherine’s Park and Julia Richman Education Complex, which houses some students with autism and other special needs; the inclusion of bio-safety level 3 labs, which tend to handle dangerous pathogens; as well as a perceived refusal on the part of NYBC to heed the community’s concerns and compromise.

Despite those concerns, NYBC has pushed forward with its project as originally designed. The project includes a modernization of the Blood Center’s headquarters at East 67th Street, which would take up four floors of the building, as well as 11 floors of commercial space that developers say will be leased to nonprofit life science organizations. Partnering with NYBC is the Boston-based real estate group Longfellow, which has experience in building such life science hubs. Longfellow would finance the construction of the new building and own the top commercial office and lab space while NYBC would own its four floors. With research institutions such Weill Cornell Medical, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Rockefeller University within a few blocks of the prospective site, officials representing NYBC have argued the project offers a great opportunity for future collaboration.

Currently, the Blood Center rezoning is before the City Planning Commission. The commission’s 12 members are expected to take a vote on the matter near the end of September. If a majority votes against the rezoning, it could put an end to the project. If a majority votes to approve it, the project would go to City Council, where members would have 50 days to hold a vote of their own.