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Community Board 8 task force strikes down MSK-CUNY zoning change proposal

It's no secret that some Upper East Siders are skeptical, at best, of the Memorial Sloan Kettering-City University of New York medical center and educational complex that may be going up on 73rd to 74th Streets Street and York. In fact, 136 residents have signed a petition against the construction of this building. At last week's CUNY-MSK Task Force meeting, the committee voted to disapprove the zoning map change, disposition of the project site, and the waivers that would allow MSK-CUNY to increase the height of the building, floor area, and add rear yard and side yard extensions.

The MSK-CUNY complex would consist of the cancer center building (approximately 23 stories tall and treating over 1,200 patients daily), and the CUNY-Hunter building, which would be 16 stories tall, and is currently in the Uniform Land Use Review Process, waiting for approval. The many swirling concerns in residents' minds about the proposed project include a negative influence on the community, swelling pedestrian population, and blocking riverside access. But by far the largest concerns are traffic and parking-related.

In their Environmental Impact Statement released last month, AKRF, an environmental, planning and engineering consulting firm, determined that 19 intersections would be severely impacted by the new traffic, but that parking would have little to no change. According to AKRF, thousands of new people and cars would be coming to the center every day, and according to residents, that would decrease the public open space in the area.

"If your resolution is simply going to say 'we disapprove of this because of a lack of open space,' we ask you to please look at past applications you've approved that did not include any public space," said Shelley Friedman, who is the lead attorney for the MSK-CUNY project, to the board.

But residents are still unhappy with impact on traffic and parking. The traffic problem areas, according to George Alexiades, who presented an alternative look at the community impact at the meeting last week, exist between 71st and 74th and York Avenue. The traffic there, he said, is severely backed up, even now, during peak rush hour times due to multiple turn lanes, and cars trying to get onto the entrance of the FDR Drive. Alexiades also said that delivery trucks often block lanes of traffic in that section, creating a line of cars trying to turn onto York Avenue.

"It is just backed up constantly, people cannot get through that intersection because York is already packed," said Alexiades. "If you put in this structure it will be impossible, and it will congest all the side streets because they will be looking for parking."

In addition, MSK admits that the proposed parking spots would not be enough for the complex. Alexiades is picturing constant streams of cars circling the nearby blocks for a parking spot. But Anne Locke, from AKRF, said that the parking and traffic might only cause congestion during peak hours of the day.

So what is the solution to the inevitable traffic jam? According to MSK-CUNY, increasing the time of the green light by two seconds could mitigate most of the problems in the affected intersections.

"We have had so much construction around here, and so many institutions making promises, but when the day is done, the promises fall away," said Elaine Walsh, a community board member. "The community is tired of this."

The problem here, said Alexiades, is that with the huge influx of people coming into the area every day, those two seconds would probably not make much of a difference. He said that he and the other residents who are vehemently against this cancer and educational complex believe that the only way to mitigate the concerns for both traffic and parking would be to decrease the size of the complex. But it doesn't look like MSK-CUNY will be changing their plans anytime soon. And according to Owen Gutfreund, an urban planning expert, that may be a good thing, despite the traffic.

"The shift of this site's use, from the previously noxious and unattractive industrial building to an attractive and modern new community-service facility such as I've seen will be a dramatic improvement that should be welcomed with open arms," said Gutfreund. "Opposition to this project is nothing less than NIMBYism of the worst sort."

The full board will vote on the zoning resolution changes at their meeting this week.

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