As far as development proposals go, the New York Blood Center’s expansion of its Upper East Side headquarters is practically demure. The East 67th Street redevelopment would upgrade the four-story center’s labs and expand them over five stories, with the rest of the proposed 16-story building rented out to life-science companies. But the local City Councilmember, Ben Kallos, is so staunchly opposed to the plan that he’s even willing to rely on Mark Epstein, brother to Jeffrey, in a last-ditch effort to kill it. His constituents pushed back against the project proposal almost immediately after it was introduced in October 2020. Now, the Blood Center fight may blow up the way development deals get done in the City Council.
It’s true, as opponents complain, that the proposed building would violate the block’s low-rise zoning and cast shadows on a nearby park and school. Kallos has argued for the blood center to build elsewhere, even just a block away, where the zoning allows buildings to rise higher. He has also insinuated that the Blood Center could unleash pathogens on the neighborhood (despite similar labs existing a short walk away). Moreover, Kallos argues that the project is a handout to a medical nonprofit that is a titan in the blood industry. “This is just about printing money for a nonprofit and putting up an office tower on a residential block,” Kallos recently told Curbed.
None of this — the pathogen leak hypothesis, the shadows — appears to have convinced other City Council Members. This time, they ignored the decades-old practice of following the local member’s lead when voting on redevelopment projects and actually approved it in two committee votes. The center provides roughly 90 percent of the city’s blood supply, and as Council member Rafael Salamanca, the chair of the powerful land use committee, put it to Politico on Monday, “It’s hard to tell a nonprofit that saves lives, to say no to them, when they’re trying to increase their capacity and their research for New Yorkers.” On Wednesday, Council leaders — Kallos not among them — announced that they brokered a deal with the Blood Center to pass the project. Namely, the building will be 100 feet shorter, and the center will kick in funding for St. Catherine’s Park and the Julia Richman Educational Complex.
Kallos, in turn, is throwing a procedural wrench into the process by supporting an unusual last-ditch petition to require a two-thirds majority to approve the project. That effort is driven by the residents of a neighboring 200-unit building, where Mark Epstein owns the majority of the apartments. He used to rent many of them to his brother, and they were allegedly used to traffic underaged girls. But the units Jeffrey Epstein once put teen models up in could have their views blocked, so: The challenge takes advantage of an obscure City Charter provision that allows property adjacent to the building to raise the vote threshold for the project.
The condo building officially filed the supermajority challenge with the City Clerk on October 21, but it appears to be the first time the provision has been invoked, so it’s not exactly clear how things will play out. The Council’s lawyers are currently reviewing the challenge. Lawmakers approved the project in votes in the zoning subcommittee and land use committees Wednesday; it will head to the full Council for a vote on November 23. But now that 100 feet are going to be lopped off, even hitting a two-thirds majority shouldn’t be an issue. The blood center will very likely be the first rezoning to be approved without the local member’s blessing since 2009.