Zoning issues are invariably complex, but the case of God’s Love We Deliver’s plan to sell a portion of its air rights to a neighboring development project presented special challenges for Community Board 2. Ultimately, the community board resolved to support the application, but its stance has left many neighbors angry — and not just at the board’s resolution, but also at the process by which the board arrived there.
The board was confronted with an issue with many sides. First was the fact that God’s Love is an organization that most support. Founded during the AIDS crisis to feed people who were literally wasting away from their sickness, today G.L.W.D. distributes more than 1 million healthy meals per year in New York City and the surrounding region, to people suffering from not only AIDS and H.I.V. but cancer and other illnesses.
However, God’s Love, which prides itself on having no waiting list for its services, today is at the bursting point in its small Soho building at Sixth Ave. and Spring St. Rather than relocate, the organization decided to grow vertically by adding three floors. To ensure that its $22 million expansion project will have the needed finances, G.L.W.D. hit upon the idea of selling air rights to an adjacent 14-story residential project.
Although neighbors aren’t happy about God’s Love adding even three floors, there are larger questions of whether the organization can in fact legally transfer its air rights to a for-profit entity. In 1993, before God’s Love purchased its then city-owned building at auction, the City Council put a special deed restriction on it, requiring community-facility use. God’s Love’s air rights presumably also carry the community-facility use restriction.
The air rights transfer would allow the developer, QT, to build more condos in a bulkier building, one that would extend 30 feet farther south as a result. This extra 30 feet is not “just a few feet,” one neighbor said, but — at 14 stories — is “a huge mass.”
As Tobi Bergman, the chairperson of C.B. 2’s Land Use Committee, stated, there clearly is an argument that can be made that the air rights transfer doesn’t pass legal muster. As one Soho activist on C.B. 2 put it more bluntly, it just “doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
And yet, the Bloomberg administration is clearly behind the God’s Love application — that is for a so-called “minor modification” that specifically would allow the QT building’s residents to access the new G.L.W.D. rooftop, fulfilling the residential building’s open-space requirement. Without this modification, the deal wouldn’t work.
What really has galled neighbors though was the board’s process. At its Dec. 12 meeting, the Land Use Committee nearly unanimously resolved to deny the application. But then two board members, Bergman and David Gruber, the C.B. 2 chairperson, met privately with G.L.W.D. and QT. Some concessions were agreed to, but they fell far short of what was needed in neighbors’ opinion.
Clearly, Bergman and Gruber assayed to do the right thing, and were perhaps hoping the committee’s denial would be bargaining leverage to wrest greater concessions. But, as Bergman himself has said, it would have been better if these negotiations had happened earlier in the process — which would have allowed more public input and review.
There was also the issue of not wanting to block a good organization from doing what it feels it must do in order to survive and flourish, and to keep helping people. We support God’s Love’s mission. We also sympathize with its neighbors. We think C.B. 2’s members made their best efforts to do the right thing for all parties involved and to strike the right balance on a complex issue.
But next time, these sort of critical negotiations must, to the greatest extent possible, be done and vetted in public — so that the affected community members have a fair chance to weigh in. Yes, this was a tough call for C.B. 2, but the public should never be left out of the process — or, just as important, should never feel that it was left out.