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New York City tennis court plan sparks backlash amid housing crisis

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In the heart of New York City, a plan by developer Vornado to transform the site of the demolished Hotel Pennsylvania into tennis courts and a billboard, amid a deepening housing crisis, has sparked backlash from community groups and local officials.

The proposed development, temporarily shelving plans for a 56-story office skyscraper amid a commercial real estate downturn, has been criticized as a tone-deaf response to New York’s housing emergency. With the city’s vacancy rate at a low of 1.4 percent, according to data from the New York City Comptroller, demand for affordable living spaces far outweighs the supply, pushing the housing conversation to the forefront of civic discourse.

Office buildings in midtown Manhattan, a backdrop to a heated debate over the proposed transformation of the Hotel Pennsylvania site into tennis courts amid a severe housing shortage.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Vornado’s initial proposition for a towering office complex in the Manhattan neighborhood, known as PENN15, has been paused due to the faltering commercial market. The interim proposal includes leisure amenities that many, including New York City Assemblymember Tony Simone who represents the Penn neighborhood, see as unsuitable given the current housing squeeze. The choice has ignited further demand from advocacy groups who had previously advocated for residential development on the valuable midtown site.

The opposition to Vornado’s proposal goes beyond discontent with the luxury amenities in a city starved for housing. “End Hochul’s Hoax,” a campaign led by community members and housing advocates focusing on Governor Kathy Hochul’s controversial urban development policies, casts a critical eye on the broader implications of such developments at a time when New York City grapples with its most severe housing shortage in six decades.

According to the campaign, Governor Hochul has been implicated in an initiative that aimed to transform a portion of land near Penn Station into over 17 million square feet of high-end office space. The plan, which would bypass existing New York City zoning laws, according to the campaign, has been criticized for favoring commercial interests, specifically benefiting the real estate developer Vornado and its CEO, Steve Roth, at the expense of addressing the acute housing shortage.

The campaign accuses Governor Hochul of prioritizing the interests of wealthy donors over the needs of New Yorkers. With a vacancy rate at a record low, the campaign argues that the land under discussion could instead be used to develop thousands of new housing units to alleviate the city’s housing shortage.

Advocates from the “End Hochul’s Hoax” initiative are rallying for the cessation of what they deem Hochul’s Penn plan, urging for a reevaluation of priorities that places affordable housing and community needs at the forefront of urban development initiatives.

Newsweek has reached out to Governor Hochul, as well as the “End Hochul’s Hoax” campaign by email for comment on Monday morning.

Assemblymember Simone has also emerged as a vocal critic of the developer’s current plans. In comments provided to Newsweek on Monday by his Communications Director, Emma Johnson, Simone slammed the idea of turning a site with such potential into what he deems a “playground for the wealthy,” pointing to the city’s vacancy rate as a clear indicator of the need to reprioritize housing over commercial interests.

“With that level of severity in the housing shortage, it is ridiculous that Vornado would propose a playground for the wealthy, including tennis courts and a huge billboard that no one is asking for, on a prime piece of real estate in one of the most transit-rich areas of the city,” Simone said to Newsweek. “Because the former Hotel Pennslyvania site is under the Penn GPP, the state has more power over the area than typical, and should use that power to ensure the site is being used for a purpose that will serve our city.”

Despite the uproar, Vornado has remained mostly silent on the controversy, mentioning to the business website Craine’s earlier this month that the tennis court concept was one of several ideas for the site.

Newsweek has reached out to Vornado for comment via email on Monday morning.

Experts in urban development and real estate have weighed in, noting the negative financial impact on Vornado if it pivots from commercial to residential development. However, Simone’s communications director told Newsweek that the state’s government should step in.

“The state should pass a new tax incentive that expands on what 421a was able to accomplish, so that developers can build the housing that is so desperately needed,” Johnson said. “When combined with affordability requirements that take into account the needs of low and middle income folks in New York City, the tax incentive will be a critical tool for addressing the housing crisis.”

Other proposals range from converting existing structures like empty office space to incentivizing new affordable residential projects. “Increasing supply is the best way to bring prices down and make housing more affordable for everyone,” Johnson said.

“There are several tools we can utilize to achieve that: converting empty office space to residential, legalizing growth around suburban transit stations, and new incentives to developers to produce affordable housing.”

Additionally, Johnson mentioned that Assemblymember Simone is set to propose legislation aimed at minimizing bureaucratic delays and lowering the costs associated with creating affordable housing in New York. Simone and his colleagues plan to work together to ensure the passage of the policies within this year.