Hundreds of Members Attend Midtown East Rezoning Hearing

Hotel Voice — May 24, 2013

If the neighborhood around Grand Central Station is going to be rezoned for development purposes, the issue of hotels that would be built as part of the project should be addressed. That was the message delivered at a hearing this week by hundreds of members of our Union and even some elected officials.

The May 13 hearing was held by the Multi-Board Task Force, a combination of several community boards whose neighborhoods will be impacted by the redevelopment of the area known as Midtown East. Residents and commercial interests from the 78-block area attended the hearing, but so did more than 400 members of our Union.  Some of the Hotel Trades Council members who attended the hearing had the opportunity to speak. Others were able to fill out forms where they could express their thoughts on hotels and development projects, and these were also submitted.

The turnout of Hotel Trades Council members was so large, many had to wait outside before being seated. Realizing this, three elected officials spoke personally to these members, saying that they too believed that development projects better serve communities when the rezoning includes special permits for hotels. Those officials, New York City Council Member Dan Garodnick and New York State Senators Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman, also let the Multi-Board Task Force know their feelings on the issue.

Garodnick even tweeted his position, saying, “The New York Hotel Trades Council turns out hundreds of members in support of special permit for hotels in Midtown East rezoning plan, which we should require.”

The reasoning behind the idea of special permits involves hotels’ unique impact on a community or neighborhood. Unlike residential and commercial development, hotels are distinct because they operate 24 hours a day, they add to noise and greatly increase traffic, especially cabs which often line up at taxi stands in front of hotels and usually leave their engines running. Indeed, hotels have an enormous impact on neighborhoods, and that is why their inclusion in a development project warrants extra consideration. Most important of all, special permits for hotels would allow neighborhoods and communities to have a real say on the impact the hotels would have.

As many argued, without special permits the result is an overdevelopment of the type of hotels that do not improve a community: limited-service, low-wage properties that only benefit their owners.

It should be added that the Union has repeatedly emphasized that it does not oppose the redevelopment of various areas of the city. But responsible development is a must and the Union believes that special permits for hotels are a big part of responsible development. In fact, special permits for hotels have already been included in rezonings in some other areas of the city. The idea of special permits even has support from the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) an association of builders, owners and developers. A spokesperson for REBNY spoke at the May 13 hearing in support of our Union’s position on special permits. So did a representative of the Building Trades, a council of unions involved in construction. Others who have expressed support for special permits for hotels include the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and 32BJ Service Employees International Union.

Among the members of our Union who spoke at this week’s hearing were Adwoa Twumasi, W New York, Juana Velez, Westin Grand Central, Papa Ndiaye, 70 Kimpton Park, Sal Marciante, Westin Times Square, Charles Montalbano and Serge Jeudy, Grand Hyatt, and Brian Gaffney, a banquet bartender.

Their testimony was compelling. All explained their experience in the hotel industry and gave reasons why they supported special permits for hotels. In effect, each statement was strongly in favor of protecting the middle class jobs offered by full-service hotels and strongly against the low-wage jobs — with few if any benefits — that are offered by the limited-service hotels that will multiply if the redevelopment of Midtown East doesn’t include special permits for hotels. Another speaker was Michael Greeley, an employee of the Waldorf-Astoria, who is also a member of Community Board 5, one of the components of the Multi-Board Task Force.

Josh Gold, the Union’s director of political and strategic affairs, noted that the Union generally supports rezoning but also wants middle class jobs included in the equation. And the city’s mayoral candidates also expressed support for special permits.

“As I have said since this rezoning was proposed, a special permit for hotels must be a necessary component of this rezoning plan,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said. “Special permits for hotels safeguard the community from overdevelopment of hotels, which pose unique challenges to neighborhoods.”

New York City Comptroller John Liu voiced his support, too. “The Midtown East rezoning must encompass a special permit process so that only full-service hotels are built in the area,” he said. “Such a strategy is a win-win for all New Yorkers.”

“We all support a revitalized Midtown that’s second-to-none as a commercial hub,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said. “But we’re not going to achieve that goal if low-rent hotels and poverty wage jobs become the new norm near Grand Central. The special zoning process for hotels will ensure we get the most economic bang and the best jobs out of this critical rezoning.” Union President Peter Ward summed it up by explaining that the Union actually supports redevelopment, but wants to see that it works for all New Yorkers.

“While we strongly support the rezoning in order to make sure that Midtown remains the world’s central business district for decades to come, the city has an opportunity to protect the community, protect the hotel industry and protect tens of thousands of middle class New Yorkers,” Ward said. “Without a special permit process, the area could be overrun by limited-service hotels with low-wage jobs, not the world class hotels a world class business district deserves.”

The extremely strong turn out of members on May 13 and the comments made by those who had the opportunity to speak made it clear that the issue of special permits for hotels is vitally important for more than creating new middle class hotel jobs. It is vitally important in order to protect the jobs of the 7,000 Hotel Trades Council members who work in the 26 hotels located in Midtown East.

It was standing-room-only as members filled the hall and the outside hallways for the May 13 hearing.