Stringer wants a say in Bloomberg’s proposal to sell city-owned buildings downtown

Scott Stringer and Julie Menin. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Last week, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan in his State of the City address to sell three city-owned buildings in lower Manhattan, he said it was part of an effort “to make government more efficient and continuing to consolidate city operations.” 

But Friday afternoon, standing in front of one of the three buildings, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer threatened to block the plan, unless there was first a process by which community residents could have a say in the decision. As he spoke, blasts of cold wind threatened to rip the city flag off 49-51 Chambers Street above him.

Stringer said keeping the buildings was smarter than selling them off in a one-shot deal.

“For too long, we’ve sold off a lot of our assets because we thought we could just make it through the year,” Stringer said. “So I’m troubled from a citywide policy perspective what the sell-off means in terms of a precedent of selling. I do understand that we want to consolidate agencies, we want to streamline government, and we certainly want to make best use of our space and that’s a conversation that we’re very much in support of.”

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He said a potential $100 million cash infusion was tempting, but losing nearly 700,000 square feet of prime city-owned land would be a missed opportunity. 

“Lower Manhattan doesn’t need another hotel," he said. "It needs schools and affordable housing. It will cost the city more money to build them if it doesn’t own the land and instead have to buy it from a developer.”

Standing behind him were members of Community Board 1, including Chair Julie Menin, who is preparing a bid for Manhattan borough president.

“I completely agree with what the borough president has said about the need to build more schools and more affordable housing,” said Menin. “We are the fastest growing residential neighborhood in the city of New York, with 30,000 new residents. We need more schools and we also have a real dearth of affordable housing.”

Under Bloomberg’s plan, the city Economic Development Corporation would take bids for the best uses for the site.  Bloomberg said selling the properties could bring in $100 million for the capital budget plus, eventually, $100 million in tax revenue plus savings on maintenance.

Stringer said he first heard of the plan the week before, when the mayor’s office reached out to his land-use staff. As borough president, he has more ceremonial power than real authority in most public-policy areas, but he noted that the city charter gives the Manhattan borough board a say in land use issues, and threatened to use his muscle as chair of the board.

“Through using the E.D.C. process, that triggers the borough board to have the final determination as to whether these buildings could be sold off. And that gives the community, council members, community board members, [and] my office, leverage to negotiate in this process.”

Stringer said he wasn’t fully opposed to the mayor’s proposal or selling the land, but he insisted the community board be allowed to give input into how buildings would be used, especially if they were going to be sold to private developers. 

The buildings, 49-51 Chambers Street, 22 Reade Street and 346 Broadway, were built in the 19th century. None of them began as city-owned buildings.

The city bought the former Emigrant Industrial Savings at 49-51 Chambers Street in 1965, intending to demolish it and replace it with a new municipal building. Now landmarked, it houses Community Board 1 and offices for department of education and the NYPD. Last summer, as City Hall underwent a renovation, the City Council met under its vaulted ceilings.

The Department of City Planning is in the nearby Reade Street building. (If the plan advances to ULURP, the department would have to vote on selling its own offices.)

The Department of Buildings moved into the row of buildings in 1987, but they were originally created as a row of "six-story, 19th-century business buildings."

Stringer’s own office at 1 Center Street towers over the two buildings. It’s not planned for sale, but five years ago, it was speculated that, too, would be sold to residential developers if a new city building was built at the World Trade Center.

The third building is farther north at 346 Broadway. Built in 1896, it was once the headquarters of New York Life Insurance Company, but now houses the city’s sanitation and payroll departments as well as the New York City Criminal Court and domestic violence non-profit Safe Horizon.