college try

Big-Time Builders Line Up for Shot at Prime Manhattan CUNY Property

CUNY is soliciting developers interested in rebuilding on a John Jay College building on Amsterdam Avenue, Oct. 10, 2019.
CUNY is soliciting developers interested in rebuilding on a John Jay College building on Amsterdam Avenue, Oct. 10, 2019. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

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Some of the biggest developers in New York are sizing up the possibilities for a prime West Side property the City University of New York wants to turn into hard cash and a new college facility.

Records show Related Companies, RXR Realty and Hudson Companies were among a slew of real estate firms that took an October 16 tour of the four-story North Hall building at 1 Amsterdam Ave., which can be built up to roughly 800,000 square feet.

The tour was part of a pitch by CUNY to create about 300,000 square feet of academic space in addition to whatever private builders propose for the site of the low-slung former John Jay College building. CUNY disclosed it is considering selling the site or making a long-term lease agreement.

According to documents released by the university on Thursday, dozens of real estate reps took a look.

“It screams for condos,” a representative of one luxury developer that sent staff on the tour told THE CITY.

In written responses to developers’ questions, CUNY officials said affordable housing would not be required — and underscored that maximum revenue is the goal.

“CUNY’s goal in pursuing a public-private partnership at this site it to maximize the return to CUNY; therefore, CUNY’s preference is highest and best use,” the university’s facilities planning department wrote.

“Highest and best use” is industry lingo for the maximum legally allowed development of a property, for the highest monetary value. The four-story John Jay building occupies roughly one-third of the total square footage allowed by current zoning rules.

The university also left the door open to an even bigger project through the sale of air rights from other properties in the area.

A study commissioned by CUNY in 2007 — included in the open call from CUNY for development ideas — concluded that nearby Haaren Hall, part of John Jay College, was the only viable source of air rights for 1 Amsterdam. If sold, those rights could provide an additional financial boost for CUNY.

But to unlock that option, the 116-year-old building would need to be landmarked and get a special permit — actions that would have to go through a lengthy public approval process from multiple city agencies.

A Guttman faculty member, Andrea Morell, reacted on Twitter after this story was posted: “Condos above a community college would be a disaster for working class-students of color because of the policing that it will bring.”

New Home for Guttman

A previous university master plan and report by The Real Deal said the address would become the new home of Guttman Community College, a CUNY school founded in 2012 with academic programs created with an eye to boost graduation rates.

Guttman currently rents space next to Bryant Park in Midtown.

The university declined to answer specific questions about the Amsterdam Avenue project. CUNY “is looking to see how it might be able to make better use of an underutilized asset,” spokesperson Frank Sobrino said in a statement.

The university’s move to redevelop the site comes at CUNY has undergone years of budget cuts. According to an independent audit from last year, CUNY had a deficit of nearly $700 million.

Though CUNY has worked with private partners before — notably to build dorms and to move its law school to Long Island City — the Amsterdam Avenue project would be the first effort by the public university system to use its property to generate significant revenue while gaining classroom space.

Proposals from developers for the John Jay site are due back to CUNY by Nov. 20.

This story has been updated to add a Guttman Community College faculty comment.

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