By SUSAN LIPPMAN
When a high end real estate developer (The Hudson Companies) and a major university (Cornell) partner to build a "state of the art" campus and the tallest passive house ever built on Roosevelt Island, I smell a rat.
Passive houses are designed to be energy efficient and are wonderful. But wealthy developers will build with renewables only if they see enormous profits for themselves. The Hudson Companies has an adversarial relationship with many communities and individuals, especially in Brooklyn. Hudson was the company that was chosen to purchase the Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn Heights Library at Tillary Street in exchange for building luxury housing. That project appeared to be a done deal, despite massive community opposition to sell-off a very valuable library, which appears to have been deliberately neglected as a pretext for its sale. At a public hearing on June 17, 2015, the team that wants to sell and shrink the library was given an hour and a half for its sales pitch, after which people gave their testimony. Surprisingly, the Community Board's decision resulted in a stalemate. However, the final vote will be in a few weeks. Of course the library's CEO and the developers have promised that ultimately there will be more and better library space in Brooklyn, but that is patently false and cannot be believed. The proposed new library will be considerably smaller than the present one, although, according to Hudson and the Brooklyn Public Library's CEO, Linda Johnson, other libraries, including the one in Sunset Park, will be expanded. However, these promises fly in the face of reality. Every time there has been a so-called private-public partnership in New York City, valuable public space has been permanently lost. The library will definitely shrink forever. Furthermore, Mayor Bill de Blasio has close ties with the real estate industry, despite being ostensibly pro-tenant. He received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from realtors, whose primary focus is on build luxury housing -- at everyone else's expense. The real estate companies that rewarded de Blasio handsomely during his bid for mayor are the ones most likely to receive the bids to shrink public places in order to build housing for the rich and thus destroy neighborhoods via gentrification. David Kramer, an associate of Hudson contributed a substantial amount to de Blasio's campaign.
The developers argue that about 20 percent of their buildings are "affordable." But the perpetual questions remains, "affordable for whom?" Individuals and families earning less than $50,000 need not apply. Only people whose incomes are 60 per cent or more of the Area Median Income are eligible, as there are often as many as 400 applications for each "affordable" apartment.
Additionally, landlords who reserve 20 per cent of the apartments in their buildings to non-affluent people get a tremendous incentive known as 421-a, a massive tax break.
In December, 2013, various organizations and individuals residing in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn filed a lawsuit against Hudson which was building a 23-story luxury tower at 626 Flatbush Avenue, in which only 51 of 254 apartments were to rent for less than the market rate. The New York City Housing Finance Agency was sued, along with Hudson.
According to the litigants : "More than 72 million in public funds were approved for the development without the proper environmental impact statement." Additionally, they argued, the tower would have a significant and deleterious effect on Prospect Park, as it would be 50 percent taller than any other building in the area and would cast shadows, thereby affecting the flora and fauna in the park. Not only that, but low- and moderate-income tenants and businesses would be priced out resulting from gentrification pressures on the neighborhood.
Activists have also severely criticized the 421-a program, in which Hudson has been a beneficiary, explaining that the money lost to the city due to that program could better be spent to directly provide much-needed affordable housing.
In 2014, a judge ruled that construction be halted so that the Housing Finance Agency could review the impact of the construction on the community. A month and a half later, however, construction resumed after the Housing Finance Agency convinced the same judge that the environmental impact of the towering construction was negligible.
Nevertheless, Lefferts-Gardens residents remain active and are fighting to prevent further luxury high rise buildings in their neighborhood and are fighting against 421-a.
Returning to what is happening on Roosevelt Island, as you may know, universities are notorious for being greedy landlords, as egregious as Hudson and many others. Just look at what New York University is doing to the West Village and what Columbia University is doing to West Harlem.
Hudson and Cornell are awash in greenwashing. Their propaganda, though, is very effective. After all, doesn't everyone want passive houses, run exclusively on renewable energy ?
Questions about how the Cornell-Technion campus was approved
Cornell University, backed by a rich donor like former mayor Michael Bloomberg, was given a contract to built a huge science and technology center on Roosevelt Island. This was done with no input from New York City residents, although our taxes are paying for a lot of it, to the tune of about $100 million.
Residents of Roosevelt Island had no input. Students and faculty of the university were never consulted, either. The deal was made in secret, with absolutely no input from the public, although it was approved overwhelmingly by the New York City Council during the Bloomberg administration, and it has received total support and approval from Mayor de Blasio.
There were problems from the outset. First of all, Cornell has contracted with the Israel Institute of Technology, also known as Technion University, which manufactures weapons, drones, and bulldozers, used mostly to kill Palestinians and to destroy their houses. Of course, Cornell never mentions that Technion is a major weapons manufacturer in Israel. Technion has also been clandestinely been involved in the Israeli nuclear weapons program.
Furthermore, in order to build its proposed mega-facility, Cornell has already demolished a longstanding hospital, Coler-Goldwater, a long-term hospital and facility for chronically-ill and disabled people, many of whom suffer from dementia. Allegedly, the residents have been transferred to other facilities throughout the city, in and of itself a grave hardship for the severely-ill and disabled. There were serious concerns about undocumented hospital residents, who might have been in danger of being deported when the hospital closed. Thus far, I have not seen any specifics on where those residents have gone or if anyone has been deported.
Of course, all the hospital workers lost their jobs. This, too, was done in virtual secrecy.
And 94 of the 134 tree surrounding the hospital have been slated to be cut down.
And that's not all.
To this day the residents of Roosevelt Island are concerned about long-term noise and air pollution from construction trucks entering and leaving the island. This is extremely concerning, as the project is not slated for completion until 2037, although the first building is expected to be completed in 2017. To my knowledge, Cornell has never given a specific number of how many trucks would be coming or going, despite its assurances that most of the construction materials would be transported by barge.
However, Cornell has cited expenses and lack of feasibility as excuses not to use barges, although it is one of the wealthiest institutions in the nation. Critics have noted that diesel fuels from trucks contain more than 40 harmful chemicals, many of them carcinogenic.
According to members of the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC), Cornell-Technion has not been a good neighbor. Linda Heimer, a coalition director, said that Cornell-Technion has "very little accountability." She noted also that Cornell has refused to provide money for essential services on the island.
Jeffrey Escobar, a pro bono attorney acting on behalf of Roosevelt Island residents, has said, "In the lease with the city, Cornell-Technion got 12.5 acres of land, $100 million, and a 99 year tax abatement."
He described the commitments in the lease as "frequently vague and unspecific, written in a way that defies accountability." He and other community members noted that if Cornell-Technion is not legally obligated to do something, as written in the lease, it adamantly refuses to do it. Cornell has been asked over and over again to significantly mitigate the traffic bottleneck when school is letting out. If it's not in the lease, however, Cornell-Technion makes no promises.
Ecological impacts of the Cornell-Technion construction
Here's a sampling of a few questions community members asked the Cornell-Technion representatives at a recent question and answer session. (Note: Cornell-Technion had already agreed to a 40 percent reduction in truck traffic.)
Concern from a RICC co-chair : A 40 percent reduction in truck trips there will still be truck trips......600 truck trips per day."
Response : “I will have to look into those numbers. They don't sound right to me. Those numbers sound very high.”
The president of the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association suggested that Cornell schedule specific times for construction vehicles on Main Street for safety reasons, noting that there are seniors, children, and disabled people who cross the street at all times, noting also that between 7:30 and 9 a.m. there are between 700 to 800 children coming up and down Main Street.
Response : Construction hours are between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. We have eliminated 40 percent of the trucks.
If you were a resident of Roosevelt Island, would you be satisfied with those answers ?
People are also concerned about potentially hazardous dust, in addition to overcrowding, gentrification, and increased security and police presence.
Presently, the F train and the Roosevelt Island tram and a bus to and from Astoria are the only forms of public transportation available to and from Roosevelt Island. The subway and the tram are already dangerously overcrowded.
Finally, members of an organization called, New Yorkers Against Cornell-Technion (NYACT) contacted Cornell University's ethics hotline in 2013 to express concerns. According to the NYACT website, the call was made about 1 p.m. When no response was forthcoming, a second call was made at 2:00 p.m., when the members were informed via robocall that the Ethics Department had shut down. Where is the transparency? The ethics hotline is once again up and running.
So when you hear about a new passive house being built, find out who is building it and whom it is likely to benefit.
I contacted both Hudson and Cornell-Technion in order to find out how much the monthly rent would be in the new passive house that is being built, supposedly mostly for students and faculty of the new Cornell-Technion facility. Thus far, I have received no reply. There is no mention of the specifics of affordability in that building, which is using only renewable energy and which, after the initial construction costs, will result in energy savings of up to 90 percent. The company assures us, however, that the price for a rental apartment there will be less than the market rate, without indicating exactly what the market rate is and just how much less the new tenants will be paying. It is likely, however, that only the wealthier students and some full professors will be able to afford to live there. Adjuncts certainly will not. Consequently, Hudson’s and Cornell-Technion’s profits are likely to soar as a result of the much lower energy costs they will incur, whereas everyone else will be squeezed out.
I think we need to do all in our power to insure that more passive houses are built, but for the benefit of poor and working people, still the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, and not the oligarchical owning class.
How ironic that Cornell-Technion, in partnership with Hudson, is boasting about building the world's largest passive house, with renewable, safe energy, while creating an ecological disaster in the community in which it is building.