“How long is this gonna be?” asks an old woman wearing some type of purple jumpsuit, massive glasses and hoop earrings.
“As long or as short as it needs to be,” replies Gerard Schriffen, president of the Rose Hill Community Association.
“Hopefully it won’t be longer, ’cause I’ll be out of here,” she says from her seat in the front row.
On this late summer evening, in Community Room H of the East Midtown Plaza apartment complex located at 320 East 25th Street, Schriffen hopes to educate local residents about a major construction project coming to their neighborhood. In an effort to highlight the situation’s severity, fliers with the title “Health Warning!” are handed out to everyone who walks in, detailing some of the many issues with the proposed Department of Sanitation garage, which is slated for the site currently occupied by Hunter College’s Brookdale Campus.
In preparation, Schriffen bustles around the room’s front table in a navy jacket, tan pants and striped blue tie. He dressed in a similar fashion when we first met a month before for coffee to discuss Rose Hill — a continuing touch of professionalism from his days as a lawyer. The majority of that meeting was spent covering the Brookdale proposal and in the weeks since I’ve become increasing troubled by what it entails. Even though I live across the river in Brooklyn, the city could just as easily try to pull something like this in my own neighborhood. The question is what, if anything, can be done to stop them.
As Schriffen shuffles through piles of plans and papers, readying for the presentation, the room’s muted gray curtains billow with AC breeze. A poster taped to the wall lists Rose Hill’s officers, though it’s unclear if all are present. The large, spare white space is bright with fluorescent lights but currently lacking an audience. Rows of chipped metal folding chairs have been set up and an empty coat rack filled with random dry cleaning hangers waits in the corner.
“I don’t think you’ll have that many people here,” the old woman says a couple minutes later.
While at first she would appear to be correct, sure enough, they begin trickling in close to the 7:30 start time. Aside from a couple younger reporters, the crowd ranges from middle-aged to elderly. Most wear casual clothes — work-out gear, suspenders, ball caps, a shirt that says “Bow Ties Are Cool.” A small group of other Rose Hill members, including Gerard’s wife Cassandra and partner Sam Bishop, help sign people in and get the display boards ready. Local councilwoman Rosie Mendez arrives with a couple aides, lingering close to the room’s darkened kitchen alcove and looking serious. Facing a primary election in less than two weeks, she’s been less vocal about the issue than in months prior, so her presence is an interesting surprise.
With people still trickling in, some even standing in the back at this point for lack of seats, Schriffen begins the meeting. Over 80 people have shown up and the number will continue to grow. Apparently, some things are still scary enough to get people out of their living rooms after dinnertime.
“This cannot go on!” Schriffen declares to the crowd.
Knowing that he’s worked tirelessly on this issue for months now, I’m not surprised by his passion. Some in the crowd are, though, and he instantly commands their attention. Now in full lawyer mode — he was once an assistant D.A. in Brooklyn, among other thing things — Schriffen launches into it, his enunciation ringing off the room’s concrete-block walls.
“None of the issues which I am going to present to you represent my opinion. None of the issues and facts which I’m going to give to you are facts which the city has not disclosed in writing. My shock and surprise was when I found out that no one read the stuff! Had they read it, I doubt very much we would be having this meeting tonight.”
As I learned while writing about Rose Hill last month, this is by far the biggest threat the community has faced in a long time. Schriffen has led the charge against everything from incinerators to the distribution of institutional facilities over the years, but until now Rose Hill’s main issue had been one of lost identity despite rich history. While that continues to be a problem — especially with the recent encroachment of “NoMad,” the real estate industry’s latest colony — the Brookdale situation is much more pressing.
Located on approximately 4.2 acres of land at 25th Street and First Avenue, the site’s borders extend north to 26th Street and east to FDR Drive. Since 1952, the campus has housed the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing, dormitories for students and other medical-related facilities. Its close proximity to Bellevue Medical Center, NYU Medical Center and the VA Medical Center, among others, has made it a prime spot for young students to get on-scene experience. The one drawback, though, is that Hunter College’s main campus is located uptown at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, leaving Brookdale somewhat disconnected.
Since at least 2007, Hunter had been soliciting proposals for purchase and development of the Brookdale site in hopes of relocating their nursing facilities uptown. Since they’re part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, proceeds from said sale would go into the city’s coffers. The idea was that a whole city block in Midtown Manhattan right next to the East River would be too good for anyone to turn down, despite the attached conditions. At one point, these plans included essentially swapping spaces with the Julia Richman Education Complex located at East 67th Street. This would still leave much of the Brookdale site available to anyone willing to share it with JREC, yet would also require the developer to assist Hunter in temporary relocation of their nursing facilities during the construction process uptown. Not surprisingly, this less than appealing plan did not go through.
Meanwhile, the city demolished what was by all accounts a perfectly functional sanitation garage at East 74th Street in 2008, with the intention of building a new one. After much delay, the city eventually said it had no money to rebuild a new one “due to budget constraints.” Councilwoman Jessica Lappin went on record against this statement, as well as the JREC proposal, but it was already too late. While no connection has yet been corroborated, it would seem that the Bloomberg administration had bigger plans in mind for the site. In May 2011, the city’s Economic Development Corporation issued a request for proposals on behalf of the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY).
On September 10, 2012, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference to announce the sale of this 66,000 square foot site for $215 million to nearby Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Their new facility will house outpatient treatment programs, create jobs and add a shiny new crop of buildings to the East River skyline. As part of the deal, they will also be giving roughly 40% of the site to the new Hunter College Science and Health Professions Building, which will house the school’s nursing program. Construction is set to begin in 2014 and completion is expected by 2018.
As a result of this arrangement, the Brookdale site would be used for a new DSNY garage to consolidate vehicles for a number of districts across the city in conjunction with the goals of the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan. Essentially, Manhattan has been relying too heavily on other boroughs to house its garbage facilities. The plan aims to redistribute and consolidate operations. Placing the facility on “Bedpan Alley” (a.k.a. the stretch of medical institutions along First Avenue) will make collection of these facilities’ red bag medical waste more efficient. Schriffen believes this also ties into a planned incinerator across the East River at Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek — just a short drive up the FDR and through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. In one fell swoop, it would seem that the city had solved many of its sanitation problems and made out handsomely in the process.
“It is a full price. We did very well,” Bloomberg said that day. “You could conceivably say we should have paid them to have this here.”
It all sounds great on paper, until you read the actual papers.
The Brookdale sanitation garage proposal calls for a 470,000 square foot facility of indeterminate height that will consolidate three existing garages and one office — essentially bringing the entire East Side’s garbage operation into one place. One of those garages is located across from the upcoming Hudson Yards mega-development so its fate is clear. What’s to come for the other sites has yet to be determined, though sale to private developers is likely. All told, this new facility on East 25th Street will house upwards of 163 DSNY vehicles — including 66 collection trucks, 35 mechanical brooms, 14 cars and 9 salt spreaders. These figures, including the number of floors it will require to house said vehicles, appear subject to change. Figures in DSNY documents — some even released on the same day — don’t line up.
Blueprints list five floors, plus basement and “penthouse” levels, though details on the fifth floor’s contents are absent. Sketches indicate a greater number of floors, which Schriffen believes may be upwards of 12. Jonathan Ruiz of Urbahn Architects, the firm behind these blueprints, says that there are, “physically more about nine floors.” He differentiated between “mezzanine levels” and “vehicle floors,” though didn’t sound sure about either. “It’s moving here and there as we find better places for things. Things aren’t really written in stone yet.”
These vehicles, regardless of their quantity and location, are intended to enter and exit on 26th Street. Currently a one-way street that’s closed to through traffic, this is a main access route for emergency vehicles at adjacent Bellevue Medical Center. The site’s southern border on 25th Street presents problems as well — it’s currently a one-way exit from FDR Drive.
The garage will be situated in the middle of this block’s rectangular piece of land, leaving one parcel on each end for potential development. If the garage were moved to either end of the block, the city could sell one larger portion of connected land rather than two separate ones, likely for a higher price. Either way, who would want to build anything next to a sanitation garage is unclear. Schriffen believes that DSNY will be using the two parcels to store salt for the salt spreaders and fuel for the vehicles, though the city refuses to corroborate these statements. Yet a very similar garage site that’s underway on the West Side at Spring Street and West Street contains the very same facilities.
The potential presence of these facilities raises additional questions, such as the safety precautions required to protect large quantities of fuel or the health hazards of ferrous-cyanide, a known anti-caking agent used in salt piles. Mixed with vehicle exhaust, these particles are within proven traveling distance of the air intakes for Bellevue, the VA Medical Center and others, along with a park and playground. It’s also expected that as much as 20% of trucks may return full of garbage at the end of the night if they can’t make it to a transfer station, leading to further air quality issues and potentially attracting vermin. Add to this the fact that the entire Brookdale Campus was flooded during Hurricane Sandy — along with many surrounding facilities which didn’t reopen for months — and the list of problems almost becomes too long to choose from.
The cost to construct this garage at East 25th Street will be roughly $200 million.
Since the proposal was officially released on May 24, Schriffen and his partner Sam Bishop have made it their mission to learn every detail. They’ve shown up to all the hearings, held community meetings and submitted official comments about the city’s Environmental Assessment Statement and Draft Scoping Document, to which a response is officially required as part of the process. Despite opposition to the project by local Community Board 6, and city council members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez, the city government has been proceeding full speed ahead. Even if they were to open a dialogue about potential changes to the facility, Schriffen would have none of it. Not building this garage is the only option.
“When it comes to public safety there can be no concessions. What are you gonna do about the ambulances going in there? What are you gonna do about the cyanide swirling around in the air? What are you gonna do about 80 to 100,000 gallons of fuel and a terrorist can just come by and throw a bomb? Boom.”
Shortly after establishing the basics at his East Midtown Plaza meeting, Schriffen invites Councilwoman Rosie Mendez up to speak. She quickly turns on a smile once in front of the crowd and clarifies that while the Brookdale site isn’t actually in her district — that honor falls to Councilman Dan Garodnick who is absent this evening, possibly because he’s running unopposed for re-election — she’s been concerned about it since the beginning.
At one point, Councilwoman Jessica Lappin — a candidate for Manhattan Borough President — stands up to speak energetically about her involvement in opposing the original 74th Street garage demolition. While it’s also unclear if this is just electioneering, her comments come across as more genuine.
With the floor back to himself, Schriffen proceeds to walk the crowd through each reason why this project is a bad idea. Growing more and more animated, Schriffen pours all of his frustration into the room. A mysterious DSNY fire was never solved on Pier 97. A salt spreader once crashed through a building. The president’s blood is stored at Bellevue when he comes to town. What does it all mean?
“I didn’t know anything about ferrous cyanide. I did a Google on it, kept me up all night,” he says. I can literally picture him staring at the computer until the sun came up, worrying about the future of his community.
He’s nearly shouting now about everything from truck decibel levels at the DSNY’s new West 59th Street garage to bond issues to the march on Washington to the City Planning Commission’s Fair Share Criteria. He knows just how dire this situation is for Rose Hill, but the crowd doesn’t seem to be on the same level. The neighborhood is already overrun by institutional facilities and this next one looks like it could be the worst of all.
One woman in a tiger shirt and hot pink hair asks why the media isn’t covering this, but extra attention is no guarantee of victory. Simple protests, publicized or not, won’t be enough. Even when led by the likes of celebrities James Gandolfini and Lou Reed, protests didn’t stop the Spring Street garage. Endless amounts of public outcry and community-funded lawyers couldn’t stop the East 91st Street marine transfer station at Asphalt Green either. When order starts to dissolve about 45 minutes in, Schriffen reveals the only real tactic left.
“Look. We’re here. We believe you. We’re concerned. What do we do? We’re sitting in chairs. Should we be marching on Washington?” an older woman asks.
“This is a political decision,” he answers.
Around 8:30, the room officially devolves into chaos.
A younger woman with glasses named Caroline stands up and takes the floor unannounced. “I am sorry, I do not want to wait to vote these bastards out. I’d rather that they not get in,” she says with conviction, repeatedly mentioning her background as a union organizer.
As the shouting continues, Schriffen’s wife Cassandra jumps in from the back, yelling at the top of her lungs, “We need to send a message to every last one of those suck-up politicians that we are not gonna take any more of their nonsense!”
In an attempt to regain control, Schriffen recommends writing letters.
Mendez pipes in from a chair near the kitchen to say that she just called Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn’s office — currently running for mayor — and she hasn’t decided her position yet.
“No position is a yes!” Cassandra responds.
“She committed treason with Bloomberg!”
Whistles ring out for attention until a woman wearing a blinking bike helmet defiantly says that she knows for a fact that Quinn is against it.
“She can’t be trusted,” says a male voice.
“Oh yeah, why because she’s a woman? Because she’s a woman. We went through this with Hillary,” the woman replies.
“Thank you, thank you. Stop. Please,” Schriffen says authoritatively.
The decision is made to send an e-mail out to everyone with the pertinent information so they can write to their elected officials. When pressed on further action, Schriffen emphasizes the political option. In our first meeting, he hinted at having other tricks up his sleeve but apparently this isn’t the time to reveal them.
As the meeting breaks up, Caroline holds court with talk of organizing a press conference outside Brookdale the following week.
Schriffen and Sam Bishop begin packing up their piles of paper. When I ask how he feels it went, Schriffen replies, “I could go five more hours.”
I certainly believe him, but the real issue seems to be whether his community members have the interest to take this any further.
“Rose Hill come off okay?” Schriffen asks a woman with whom he appears to be friends.
“Until it disintegrated,” she says matter-of-factly.
He doesn’t seem too concerned. The turnout was good and the crowd got sufficiently involved by the end. Whatever comes next is likely already in the works between him and Bishop.
I introduce myself to Bishop, shorter than Schriffen with a knit tie and quiet, raspy voice. “If we lose, we all pay the penalty,” he says.
When pressed about what comes next, he only smiles and says, “We’re in it to win.”
Nearly a month later, there have been few new developments. The press conference didn’t happen, Schriffen sent out an e-mail with facts for letter-writing on September 7 — citing politicians’ denial of air quality issues post-9/11 as a reason not to trust them — and the primary election happened on September 10. Quinn and Lappin lost their races. Mendez and Garodnick will all serve another term in city government. How that will affect their positions on Brookdale has yet to be seen.
It’s become clear after digging into the proposal that this is an issue which could be negated for a vast numbers of reasons, but few seem strong enough to halt the process entirely. Architects will continue making up details. Lawyers will find loopholes around city planning procedures. The DSNY will warp facts about non-existent fuel tanks and magically sealing flood gates. Proposals for alternate sites such as the Con Edison plant’s parking lot on 16th Street and Avenue C — mentioned as far back as 2003 in Community Board 6’s 197-a Plan — will continue to go unheeded.
At this point, all that’s left to do is wait. Rose Hill has submitted their official comments — along with 1,500 other people — to be considered by the city in their Final Scoping Document. Uniform Land Use Review Procedure hearings will be scheduled soon to discuss changing Brookdale’s current R8 (residential/institutional) zoning to M1-6 (highest density manufacturing district) which the garage would require. Community Board 6 will vote in the issue in an advisory capacity, but the real vote will happen in City Council. Schriffen believes that any studies will be a whitewash and Bloomberg is going to push this through as quickly as possible in order to get his signature on contracts by the end of his final term this year.
“Once you sign the contracts, who cares who the mayor is? Whatever person succeeds Bloomberg is not gonna have control over this,” says Schriffen.
Bloomberg’s successor will almost definitely be Bill de Blasio, who so far has taken no position on the proposal and likely won’t until at least after the election.
Short of stall tactics — and their mysterious trump card — it would seem that Rose Hill is at the mercy of greater forces. Even if it weren’t run by Mayor Bloomberg, a very rich man who will stop at nothing to get his way, New York’s municipal government would still be a formidable opponent. Its tactics may have gotten more refined since the ramrod days of Robert Moses, but they’re still incredibly effective nonetheless. The project almost feels inevitable. Despite the lively turnout at East Midtown Plaza last month, the vast majority of local residents probably won’t even realize what’s happening until they walk by a hole in the ground one day. Those who did attend can write letters all day long, but they might as well submit them directly through their garbage cans. The city won’t listen unless it has a reason to.
Yet in the face of such daunting odds, the Rose Hill Community Association will continue fighting and no matter what happens, New York will be better for it. With enough tenacity, knowledge and a little luck, citizens can still have a say in what’s built on their blocks. It won’t be easy, but even in one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s still possible to give the politicians a reality check.