On Thursday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito released a 138-page plan to guide the city’s potential rezoning of East Harlem. The proposal, crafted over 10 months by a variety of East Harlem stakeholders, mixes ambitious policy solutions with realist compromises.
East Harlem is one of the first seven neighborhoods that the mayor has targeted for an upzoning as part of his plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. While in other rezoning neighborhoods such as East New York, the Department of City Planning has conducted visioning sessions to construct a plan, in East Harlem a steering committee appointed by the Speaker took the lead in developing a comprehensive assessment of local issues.
“Community-based city planning starts from the ground up, with residents and stakeholders coming together collaboratively to plan for the future of their neighborhood,” said Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a press release. “We need to be as focused on supporting neighborhood economies, re-investing in schools and open space, and creating room for social service and cultural organizations as we are on urban renewal, rezoning, and housing production.”
The Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) have expressed interest in working with the planning participants but were not prepared to comment on the proposal’s specifics.
Community Voices Heard, which co-lead the planning process, released a statement celebrating the proposal as a document that “speaks to what the community wants and deserves,” but noted that “some recommendations did not go as far in addressing inequality in housing, community amenities, and access to good jobs as members would have liked.”
The plan recommends the city pursue a “50/50 model,” in which half the new housing units created through the rezoning are offered at below-market rates, as the city has already promised to East New York. Because the mayor’s mandatory inclusionary zoning proposal only guarantees affordability in 25 to 30 percent of a development’s units, this would require the city to commit additional subsidies to new projects.
The proposal further recommends that the city ensure 20 percent of the below-market units are available to families of three making less than $23,350, who make up 37 percent of the residents of East Harlem. This is a slightly more ambitious target than the city’s East New York plan, where HPD has committed to using the Extremely Low and Low-Income Affordability Program (ELLA) to ensure that 10 to 15 percent of the first 1,200 below-market units serve families making below $23,350—although advocates in East New Yorker are pushing for a deeper commitment to low-income housing.
A representative for the speaker’s office said the East Harlem plan attempts to meet neighborhood needs while also setting realistic goals using current HPD programs.
“It’s a good start but I still feel that we need to get more,” says Sandra Rivera, a member of Community Voices Heard. “Instead of 50/50—I know it sounds a little outrageous—but it should still be 70 percent to 80 percent.” Dennis Osorio, another member of Community Voices Heard, would have liked a greater percentage of units for people making less than $23,350.
Some neighborhood residents remain skeptical about a rezoning altogether, and see the plan as a way to make the city’s development goals attractive to the neighborhood by offering other amenities.
“There was never an actual debate or dialogue on if we should even be upzoning a working-class community of color,” says East Harlem resident and filmmaker Andrew Padilla. “To call this ‘community driven’ is simply not true. It’s driven by the real-estate industry’s desire to build taller in East Harlem.”
Spurring a housing boom
Proposed zoning changes could lead to the construction of over 14,000 units, including over 6,000 below-market units. * These figures dwarf the East New York plan, which city officials estimate will produce less than 7,000 new units. The Speaker’s East Harlem plan recommends higher densities along 1st, 2nd, and 3rd avenues, modest upzonings on portions of Lexington and Madison, new mixed-use zoning districts on Park Avenue, and high-density commercial zones around transit stops. Developers who commit to local hiring and deeper levels of affordability could receive additional density bonuses.
Some of the plan echoes demands made by other neighborhoods that have not gained traction with the city. For instance, it suggests that NYCHA residents should have the ability to vote on whether to allow private development on NYCHA property. NYCHA officials have already vowed to develop underutilized spaces with or without resident support.
It also calls for the establishment of an anti-harassment/anti-eviction district, which would require HPD to provide greater oversight of local landlords. HPD has already told coalitions in Chinatown and East New York that such provisions are too resource-intensive. If enough neighborhoods in the city make this demand, the plan’s writers hope, City Council may feel pressed to take action.
The steering committee will now transition into an oversight role to make sure city agencies heed the recommendations.
The first testing ground
Later on Thursday, HPD and DCP demonstrated goodwill towards East Harlem’s vision by hosting a forum to solicit resident input into the development of a city-owned lot on East 111th Street. The city intends to release a request for proposals for a mixed-use development that will likely include 300 to 500 units of below-market rate housing.
“The site is an exciting opportunity because it is one of the largest remaining city-owned parcels in East Harlem and has lots of potential to incorporate the community priorities that have been identified in the East Harlem planning process,” said HPD Deputy Commissioner Daniel Hernandez. The agency said it generally uses the ELLA program to reach low-income levels, but that it was too soon to evaluate whether the housing on the site would be above or below ELLA levels.
Over 100 East Harlem residents and stakeholders attended the forum and expressed the need for deeply and permanently affordable housing, community facilities, recreation space and commercial opportunities. Yet some residents have expressed concern that the process is moving too quickly and dispute the city’s plan to relocate community gardens on the site. Two community board members, including Alvin Johnson, have called for the creation of a task force to hold the city accountable to the community’s visions.
“The transparency is definitely not there,” says Johnson. ‘It’s going to be HPD and the councilmember’s office who are going to be driving the conversation.”
Mark-Viverito, for her part, said she would work hard to ensure residents’ ideas are incorporated into the city’s RFP. “This is really a new day in city governance where we really are incorporating the visions of the community,” she told the crowd, with an added word of warning. “We accommodate as much as we can…but whenever a decision is arrived at, not every single person is going to agree with that decision.”
*The plan estimates the number of units that will be produced annually in each of the rezoning districts. City Limits calculated the total number of potential units to be produced each year and multiplied the total by 15 (the length of the plan).