Today, City Council voted 7-5 to approve an 80-storey tower on the edge of the river valley, a project otherwise known as ‘the Aldritt tower.’ I voted against this project and wanted to give a summary of my Council remarks to provide context for my vote.
This is far and away the most complicated application I’ve seen come through in my time on Council. Questions of public and private realm, planning and process, catalyst and displacement all came together to make for a very difficult decision. It was a journey that exposed many limitations in our planning and decision-making processes.
The land deal for this tower created a friction between the confidential negotiation process and our desire for openness in what we do. In this case, the core issue was around securing public access to this site which we have protected through a combination of legal mechanisms in the land sale agreement. However, a community member today suggested that this entire process would have been better handled as a public RFP – which is a very fair observation for Council to bear in mind in future for public lands.
As with many of these tall tower applications that challenge our Area Redevelopment Plans (ARPs), much of our discussion was around the value of community contributions. In this case, where the affordable housing contribution is below our policy, we are left to ponder whether the other contributions to the public realm and private park space are sufficient. While there are strong signals in the land transaction for public space improvements, the fact remains: Council still has inadequate tools to assess community benefits consistently, which strongly underscores the policy gap we need to fill around community benefits.
The height for this tower is not a concern for me whatsoever, but I am concerned that we have no framework to evaluate appropriate height at all. We used to, as was pointed out, because of the limits imposed by our downtown airport. Now the only limit is engineering and money and audacity, subject to Council approval. That sounds enticing, but the boundaries are now almost entirely political and arbitrary, rather than policy-driven or evidence-based. We do need a more coherent height policy, but that is a larger issue not confined to this application, and not the main issue in my mind.
Related to this, I am also worried about undervaluing the tremendous work that goes into developing our ARPs, the value of adhering to their planning principles and the importance of predictability that they should provide to the community and local developers. While I don’t think ARPs should grow stale, I do think that significant amendments to our ARPs should require more public engagement than they do today. If we continue to make arbitrary zoning decisions like this, Council risks sending consistent signals that ARPs have little to no weight. This is a growing concern for me, and a risk to Council’s social license as stewards of planning authority.
Having said all of this, my main concern is simply that this project will change the use of these lands from a public park to a private space. The caveats on the land transaction mitigate this access issue somewhat, but it doesn’t change the underlying fact. Holding in our minds the suggestion that this decision is a ‘big city’ litmus test, I thought about New York City’s skyline, an image that would tug anyone towards a yes vote – but then I asked myself whether New York City would sell part of Central Park across the street from Harlem, and make the nearby area a private/public park, in order to jumpstart development in Harlem. I think not.
And by the way, Harlem is up and coming now. It simply took some time and patience.