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New York Battle Over New Lab Building Could Hint At Budding Life Sciences Pushback

Amid an anemic office environment, life sciences real estate projects often get welcomed as centers of innovation and employment. But a heated Manhattan zoning debate suggests that lab developers might want to be sure they factor in potential community pushback against their new developments, especially as the expected pace of urban conversions and lab development rises.

A rendering of the proposed Blood Center development in Manhattan.

The debate over a new facility for the New York Blood Center, as many of the key players in this land use saga on the Upper East Side of Manhattan explicitly say, turns on zoning issues such as building height, shadows and the wisdom of adding a new commercial tower to the neighborhood.

The city is being asked to approve a rezoning to transform the existing four-story headquarters into a $750M, 16-story, 596K SF vertical campus with lab and startup space. The Blood Center is pitching this project, to be developed by Boston-based Longfellow Real Estate Partners, as a key space for startups proximate to the medical district and centers of innovation such as New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Hospital for Special Surgery, Memorial Sloan Kettering and Rockefeller University.

“I do think there’d be as much pushback if it wasn’t a lab project,” New York Blood Center Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff Rob Purvis said. “Everyone against the project recognizes how important the lab aspect is. Opposition would be the same.”

But the way this development has been debated, and the issues it raises, make it a cautionary tale for life sciences developers, regardless of the outcome of an expected mid-November vote in front of the entire New York City Council.

“It’s been handled poorly the entire way,” Council Member Ben Kallos said of the proposal, which is in his district. “If [life sciences developers] want a lesson on what not to do and what malpractice looks like, this is it.”

The expanding demand for life sciences space, especially in dense urban markets like New York City, San Francisco and Boston, suggests there will be more instances where life sciences developers aggressively seek new opportunities and come into contact with community groups.

New York City is racing to add more lab space — the city has devoted $1B to help develop new facilities — to meet rising demand and counter perceptions that it’s punching below its weight.  

There aren’t explicitly anti-lab NIMBYs yet, but maintaining the expected pace of lab conversions and ground-up developments in cities means it is probably a good idea for developers to be more proactive in making sure such issues don’t become more ingrained.

In San Francisco, City Supervisor Shamann Walton has introduced an ordinance to rescind a land use exception for the Dogpatch neighborhood, arguing that granting more space for lab and life sciences projects would potentially push out other commercial and retail uses that would be more likely to directly employ neighborhood residents.

The structure at 69 A St. in South Boston.

In South Boston, a neighborhood seeing extensive new development, lab projects are running into some opposition from residents, especially tenants in new high-end apartment towers who don’t want their views blocked by new developments. The Zoning Board of Appeal blocked the under-construction conversion of an office project at 69-71 A St. to labs in August; the developer sued the board this month to try to get work going again.

In many parts of Boston, which is in the midst of a lab development and conversion boom, residents have complained about new projects, specifically the large rooftop mechanicals and often loud HVAC systems. The city council’s planning commission even held a hearing on the matter this summer.

“There is more public engagement when an applicant wants to get a liquor license than there is to open a lab in the city of Boston,” a neighborhood association board member, Tom Ready, said during the hearing.

There have always been people sick of development, South Boston Neighborhood Development Council Executive Director Donna Brown said, but the pace of lab development is definitely creating issues, especially in areas that haven’t been through recent planning processes, where developers keep asking for variances for more height and density. 

“Because of the nature of lab space development, where you have noisier HVAC systems and need taller buildings, people do wonder what’s going on inside their labs and what they’re doing inside,” Brown said. “What is it going to be like living near one? There’s not much info for them.” 

The Blood Center claims years of research led them to conclude there isn’t another suitable site, and they need the for-profit partner and tower with lab space for startups to afford the expansion and not compromise their ability to do research and operate within the city. Opponents argue there have to be other places in the city where they can expand.

The midblock rezoning and the shadows the tower will cast on St. Catherine’s Park and the Julia Richman Education Complex, home to five public schools, are the main complaints. Kallos told Bisnow that the district and neighborhood were pro-development and had welcomed other life sciences projects nearby (including a new Extell Development tower and an upcoming Rockefeller University incubator). 

The Blood Center project is viewed entirely differently. State Sen. Liz Krueger said the neighborhood “can’t accept this radical rezoning,” and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has also come out against the project.

“The Blood Center has been dishonest in their advocacy and won’t take no for an answer, and mentioned they need to do this for geographic proximity,” Kallos said. “I don’t know how I’m going to look my daughter in the eye if this gets approved on my watch. I’m sorry you don’t have a park with sun in it.” 

The Blood Center, originally a trade school when it was built in the 1930s, was constructed in the middle of a residential block at the time, an arrangement formalized in the 1980s when contextual zoning rules were introduced (technically, it is labeled a community facility). 

But when pressed about the unique nature of lab spaces, and whether they could be potentially vilified in a way, Purvis said, “I’m not so sure. It could evolve to something like that, it doesn’t appear to me that the lab space per se is the real issue.”

A spokesperson mentioned that, while the height of the building was the focus, there had been misinformation circulating about the biosafety level 3 labs in the facility — the facility has had labs with this security rating on-site for decades.

An opponent of the project, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts Executive Director Rachel Levy, said everybody wants the center to succeed and expand, but the community pushback and “broad consensus” among elected officials have to do with the tower and midblock rezoning (which would go well above the current 75-foot height cap).

“We’ve seen the city make life sciences a clear priority for expansion, and there’s been sites the city has prioritized for development,” she said. “This isn’t one of those sites. The only reason we’re seeing this site come forward is the Blood Center happens to own it. It’s not about opposition to the industry or construction in this area.” 

But she also said there’s “some overlap” between the zoning concerns and the fact this will be a larger lab project on a more residential block. 

“Zoning is a stand-in for that — there is some concern,” she said. “I know the BSL3 lab has been on-site since the '80s. But there was initially a lack of disclosure that the new building would also contain BSL3 labs, and the lack of disclosure in the early filings raised alarms for the community. I’d like to focus on the zoning issues, and the precedent it would set, [but] there are people who are concerned about the lab issue.”

Purvis said that one of the narratives they had discussed around the project is that New York City lags so far behind in lab space compared to other cities at a time when the city has made life sciences a focus and is in the nascent stages of an economic recovery.

The Blood Center project “fits perfectly in that space,” he said. “The need is so clear cut."

When the project was first announced, Longfellow Managing Partner ​​Jamison Peschel said it would “help New York City establish itself as a major center for the advancement of cell and gene therapies around the world.”

If the plan is rejected, Purvis isn’t sure what comes next.

At a late October city council meeting, the Blood Center offered to reduce the proposed tower’s height by 50 feet to reduce the shadows impacting the park, a Patch report noted. But that hasn’t seemed to move the needle among the opposition ahead of the crucial November vote on the project.

“We’re still open to negotiations to try and make this work,” Purvis said.