Council Hears Rockefeller University Renewal Project [Update: Council Land Use Committees Approve Unanimously]

Rendering of proposed addition to Rockefeller University. Image credit: Rafael Viñoly Architects.

Rendering of proposed addition to Rockefeller University. Image credit: Rafael Viñoly Architects.

Council Member requests Rockefeller University to consider Community Board 8 and Borough President conditions. On April 23, 2014, the City Council Land Use Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises heard an application by Rockefeller University for a special permit and related actions to allow the expansion of its campus. Rockefeller University, located on the east side of York Avenue between East 64th and East 68th Streets in Manhattan and founded in 1901, is the first institution in the United States devoted solely to biomedical research.  Rockefeller University is proposing to build a new structure that would serve its existing population and provide the modern bio-medical research space necessary to recruit and retain top researchers and faculty. The proposed expansion of the Rockefeller University campus includes a two-story research building, one story- interactive conference center in a demapped airspace over the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) Drive, and a one-story building for a recreational facility. Rockefeller University is located on the southern end of a large medical and academic corridor in Manhattan, which includes New York Presbyterian Hospital, Hospital for Special Surgery, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Weil Cornell Medical College.

Jay Bargmann of Rafael Viñoly Architects stated that the intent of the new building is to integrate existing laboratory buildings or support spaces by tying them together and allowing access from all points on the campus. The 180,000 gross sq. ft. project will be devoted primarily to a research building with a small component being devoted to a health and wellness center. The proposed new research building is a long, horizontal, two-story building extending from the southern end of the university campus to the university hospital on the north side, closing the gap to the FDR Drive between two existing buildings. Bargmann stated that the building is low in height because “research is best conducted in horizontal floor plates with large areas that allow researchers to reconfigure their groups easily without great expense.”

The proposed building is 20-feet above the FDR Drive, and the bulk of the building is primarily below the elevation of the existing campus. Bargmann states that the building has no impact when viewed from York Avenue, and has very low impact when viewed from across the East River or Roosevelt Island. In 1971, New York State legislation authorized the City of New York to close and discontinue airspace over the FDR Drive in order to convey the air space to the abutting property owners, Rockefeller University, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and the Hospital for Special Surgery. In 1973, Rockefeller University acquired air rights over the FDR pursuant to this legislation for the purpose of adding additional research space. Bargmann stated that Rockefeller University was acting on this agreement that was reached over 40 years ago.

Bargmann also described the renovations that Rockefeller University would make to the East River Esplanade neighboring their campus. Rockefeller University would rebuild the sea wall, which Bargmann stated has deteriorated over the last 80 years. New paving, plantings and benches will be added to the esplanade, as well as an eight foot acoustic barrier to reduce the sounds of traffic from the FDR Drive.

Council Member Ben Kallos questioned the developers based on the conditional approvals that Rockefeller University received from both Manhattan Community Board 8 and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Community Board 8 conditionally approved the application, requesting that a portion of the campus be open for the public’s enjoyment. Borough President Brewer’s conditional approval raised concerns that shadows that would be cast over the esplanade for up to 5.5 hours a day. She also requested that the terrace of the proposed building overlooking the river be open to the public.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Rockefeller University, responded that the university would open the campus to the public through programmed access, lectures, concerts, and other events. Tessier-Lavigne stated that in order to have an open campus, the university would need to lock down, having security guards in every access port in the building. He stated that the university is currently not set up to be an open campus and that it would not be financially feasible to lock down the campus by having guards at every entrance. He also commented that having guards at every entrance would also negatively affect the culture of the university.

Tessier-Lavigne responded that the shadow casts over the esplanade were from the existing buildings in the area, and not the proposed buildings. He also commented that the shadow casts would vary in size and duration depending on the time of year. The shadows would be cast for the longest period of time, 2.6 hours, during the height of the summer, when people would be looking for shade from the sun and relief from the heat.

Council Member Kallos requested that Rockefeller University consider a green noise barrier to reduce noise and pollution, to which Tessier-Lavigne stated the university would look into. The Council Member also asked about the possibility of Rockefeller University contributing more money towards the revitalization and repair of the East River Esplanade that extends beyond the campus, and whether the university would be willing to enter into an agreement to take responsibility for maintaining the esplanade in perpetuity. Currently Rockefeller University has an obligation to maintain the esplanade for 12 years. Tessier-Lavigne stated that the university would be open to discussions about esplanade maintenance and continued revitalizations.

At the close of the hearing, Council Member Kallos asked that the hearing be laid over until the next zoning meeting.

Update (5/8/2014): On April 8, 2014, the Committee on Land Use voted unanimously 12-0 to approve the Rockefeller University Expansion Project. On April 6th, the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises voted unanimously 8-0 to approve the project.


City Council: Rockefeller University Expansion (C 140157 ZSM – Special permit); (C 140086 (A) MMM – City map amendment); (M 721257 (D) ZAM – Modification); (N 140158 CMM – CPC Certification); (N 140159 CMM – CPC Certification)(April 23, 2014).

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