City Council Rejects Sale of City Property in Hopes for an African Burial Ground Museum [Update: Council Overrides Mayor’s Disapproval of Rejection of Sale]

View of African Burial Ground National Monument, 22 Reade Street building in the background. Credit: CityLand.

Council Member Charles Barron lead the City Council’s rejection of 22 Reade Street sale in support of the site being used for a pending federally-funded African Burial Ground Museum. On November 13, 2012, the City Council unanimously rejected the disposition of city-owned property at 22 Reade Street and approved of the disposition of City-owned property at 49-51 Chambers Street. The City’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) proposed the sale of the properties in order to reduce underutilized and inefficient City-owned space, better accommodate City employees, and save the costs of renovation and maintenance on aging buildings. The buildings were offered as an unrestricted sale through a Request for Proposals on April 23, 2012. The RFP also included 346 Broadway, which was approved for disposition in September, 1998.

22 Reade Street currently contains the offices of the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission. The building is directly adjacent to both the Ted Weiss Federal Building and the African Burial Ground National Monument. 49-51 Chambers Street – the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank – contains not-for-profit organizations and various city agencies, including Manhattan Community Board 1. Both properties are located within the African Burial Ground and the Commons Historic District, which is bounded by Broadway, Duane, Lafayette, Centre, and Chambers Streets. The district was designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1993 after the bodies of over 400 African and African-American slaves were found and excavated during construction of the Ted Weiss Federal Building in 1991.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Manhattan Community Board 1 disapproved of the sale of both properties unless certain conditions were met, including reissuing the RFP. The Community Board requested that the sale of the buildings be restricted to require community infrastructure needs such as school seats, affordable housing, and affordable commercial not-for-profit space. The Community Board also requested that the status of a parking lot on Chambers and Elk Streets, directly adjacent to the 49-51 Chambers Street building, be clarified in a reissued RFP. The Community Board also noted its concern that the RFP was released before the dispositions were certified by City Planning.

On August 8, 2012, the City Planning Commission held a hearing on the dispositions. Theresa Ward, Chief Asset Management Officer for DCAS, testified that the dispositions of all three properties would save the City $100 million over 20 years. She stated that the community’s concerns could be addressed with potential developers through the RFP process.

22 Reade Street. Credit: CityLand.

Chair Amanda M. Burden questioned Ward about development plans for the parking lot at Chambers Street, noting that the lot is within the African Burial Ground Historic District. Ward replied that the parking lot was included in the RFP but only to generate ideas for that space and any development on the lot would face further environmental review. Commissioner Irwin G. Cantor questioned the seeming urgency of the proposal. Josh Gelfman, Senior Vice President at the City’s Economic Development Corporation, responded that the City would like to close the deal by spring 2013 in order to fund relocation of the city agencies housed in the buildings. Local Council Member Margaret Chin testified that while she supported the City’s effort to generate revenue, she was concerned over DCAS’ failure to incorporate the community’s needs during the proposal process. City Planning approved the proposal on September 19, 2012 by a vote of 11-1-0, noting that the Manhattan Borough Board must approve of any terms of a sale of the properties pursuant to the NYC Charter, section 384(b)4. Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin voted “No” on the proposal, stating that while she believes “these inefficient and obsolete buildings should be sold,” the proposal lacks public policy considerations other than sale at the highest price.

At the City Council’s Planning, Dispositions and Concessions subcommittee hearing on November 13, 2012, representatives from the Borough President’s office and the Community Board reiterated their position against the dispositions and urged the Council Members to require community uses in the RFP. Joey Kara Koch, Deputy Chief Asset Management Officer for DCAS, explained the agency’s proposal and read a letter from Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, which promised to reserve at least 10,000 sq.ft. of community facility space.

Map of African Burial Ground and the Commons Historic District. Image Courtesy: LPC.

Following DCAS’ presentation, Council Member Charles Barron made an impassioned statement, urging his fellow council members to vote against the sale of 22 Reade Street based on the African Burial Ground and the Commons Historic District. He recounted the historic struggle over the African Burial Ground, beginning with the battle to properly honor the bodies of New York’s enslaved population. Barron then reminded the subcommittee of the current congressional effort to expand the national monument into an African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center. A bill to create the international museum, H.R. 784, was introduced into the House of Representatives in 2011 by Congressman Jerrold Nadler. The bill seeks to honor the estimated 20,000 enslaved Africans and African-Americans still buried within the historic district by authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to acquire property adjacent to the African Burial Ground National Monument to build an international museum. Council Member Barron called DCAS’ failure to mention the adjacent African Burial Ground, and the potential to sell the 22 Reade Street site for the museum’s use, disrespectful. Council Member Jumaane D. Williams echoed Council Member Barron’s concerns and also urged his colleagues to vote against 22 Reade Street’s sale. After a brief recess, Council Member Chin proposed a resolution to bifurcate the disposition proposal in order to allow council members to disapprove the sale of 22 Reade Street and approve the sale of 49-51 Chambers Street. The subcommittee unanimously voted for the resolution. The Land Use Committee followed suit and voted for the resolution, with Council Member Leroy Comrie commenting on the administration’s failure to inform the council members of all of the pertinent aspects of the proposal.

On November 13, 2012, the full City Council voted in favor of the resolution to disapprove the sale of 22 Reade Street and approve the sale of 49-51 Chambers Street by a vote of 42-0-0.

Council: Civic Center Plan (C 120267 PPM – disposition) (November 13, 2012).

Update (11/27/2012) – On November 27, 2012, the City Council Land Use Committee voted 18-0 to override the Mayor’s disapproval of the City Council’s rejection of the disposition of 22 Reade Street.  The full City Council subsequently voted 48-0 to do the same.  As per ULURP, a two-thirds majority vote was required to override the Mayor’s disapproval.  Several Council Members expressed disappointment in the Mayor for his disapproval. Council Member Vincent Ignizio criticized the Mayor’s decision to negotiate the sale so late in the approval process.


2 thoughts on “City Council Rejects Sale of City Property in Hopes for an African Burial Ground Museum [Update: Council Overrides Mayor’s Disapproval of Rejection of Sale]

  1. Hats off to the Council and Landmarks for remaining vigilant in keeping relevant the interests of Americans who agree that the ABG is one of New York’s most important and significant cultural resources.
    The battle to protect this site was hard fought by many New Yorkers of all backgrounds, making it deeply distressing to consider that the City of New York through its agencies would deliberately overlook a promise to steward and protect this resource.
    The claim by DCAS that the city would “benefit” from a savings of 100 million over 20 years…conjures up a dark irony in this story….as there is an unpaid debt to the enslaved Africans now resting below the foundations north of City Hall….the “benefit” for them… remains long overdue.- P. King Jorde

  2. Why hasn’t this been turned into an African Burial Ground Monument yet? I just read in the Tribeca Citizen or Tribeca Tribune that Dan Hoeg and The Hoeg Corporation submitted an offer to develop this into an African American Burial Ground and was rejected by the City.

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