Like many community boards in the city, Community Board 11 will face a daunting responsibility later this year: responding to the city’s deeply controversial rezoning plan for East Harlem during the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). In January, the board launched a nine-member task force to further investigate the rezoning plan. The second task force meeting will be today, Thursday, February 2 at 6 pm at the board’s office at 1664 Park Avenue, and every other Thursday thereafter. All meetings are open to the public. The agenda can be viewed here and minutes here
The mission of the task force is to develop an expertise in matters of zoning and land use, to share this expertise with the full board and wider community, and to take feedback in order to “ensure the rezoning reflects, preserves, and enhances East Harlem’s unique culture and results in economic vitality, affordable housing, and improved quality of life for all residents,” according to its mission statement.
The formation of the task force comes after some board members and residents petitioned the board last summer to take a more proactive role in informing the public about the rezoning process.
It also comes after the board was a couple weeks late submitting a comment on the draft scope of work for the environmental impact study that must be undertaken before the rezoning is formally reviewed. Some expressed frustration with the lack of public notice about the formation of the long awaited task force.
At the first meeting, district manager Angel Mescain said he recognizes the board may not always post information with adequate notice, but the staff is making their best effort.
“Take the community board at its word instead of repeating concerns and suspicions of the community board not sharing information. We share much more information than other community boards. Are we perfect? Of course not…Outreach is a challenge,” he said.
At the first task force meeting, several board members, including task force chair La Shawn Henry, Jesse Yang, Shantal Sparks, and Jeremiah Schlotman, made it clear that they did support some kind of rezoning, but had concerns about the city’s proposal. Some said the city’s proposed density levels were too high. Others said there needed to be additional affordable housing. Still others wanted the boundaries of the city’s plan expanded south to include parts of the wealthier Upper East Side, as in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan designed by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and a team of organizations last year.
Members of the task force frequently noted the growing controversy around the rezoning.
“The narrative in this community—and outside this community, to the general public—is that there’s a lot of opposition and we don’t want people to feel like this is a done deal or somebody’s trying to pull the wool over their head. [But] if no rezoning takes place, gentrification will happen at the speed of light because there’s no provisions to stop it,” said Henry.
Task force member Steven Villanueva said he had personal concerns about gentrification, but also said the public may need more information about how rezonings work. He hopes that with further public dialogue between oppositional groups, the board could help discover “what it is that everybody does agree with.”
Following a presentation by board consultant George Janes on the differences between the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan and the city’s proposal, task force members expressed the need for more data on how much displacement could be triggered by a rezoning. They also asked Janes for visual simulations of how a rezoning could affect a sample block on Third Avenue, and some wondered whether the mandatory inclusionary housing policy could be extended to developers that build after buying air rights from a neighboring building (the administration has opposed such an extension of the policy).
Meanwhile, several members of the public could be heard groaning “leave it alone”—in other words, do not risk rezoning the neighborhood to begin with.
Marina Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation said the board should study the loopholes that would prevent mandatory inclusionary housing from serving low income people (see our breakdown of the policy here), and noted that an ongoing lawsuit regarding the city’s community preference policy made it uncertain whether any of the affordable housing would be reserved for East Harlem residents.
Connie Lee, president of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, said she believed the wider community did not need to be educated about the technical details of the rezoning. Rather, she argued, the problem is that neither the city’s plan nor the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan reflects the wishes of the residents who participated in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan forums, many of whom she said were most interested in improvements to the neighborhood’s quality of life.
“You’re making a comparison between the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan and what the city is proposing. The disconnect is before that. It’s between the community and the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan as it was presented,” she said, adding that she did not believe the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan steering committee, which included citywide organizations and developers, reflected the interests of the wider community.
Pilar De Jesus, a tenant rights paralegal at the Urban Justice Center, said that the city should focus on the enforcement of rent laws rather than approve a rezoning, questioned why the de Blasio rezonings have been focused in communities of color, and said that the task force should reach out to Movement for Justice in El Barrio and other community groups to participate in the discussion.
Speaking on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration, Shonda Westbrook of the Poetic Empowerment Project spoke to the climate of anxiety in East Harlem that had only worsened in light of national events.
“People are uncertain now. They’re at a time in their lives when they need security, they need stability, they need to know that the U.S. is going to be okay,” she said.
Task force members assured attendees that they were members of the community themselves, that the rezoning was no done deal, and that they shared these concerns about a lack of affordable housing and displacement. Yet chair Henry and vice chair Schlotman also said they believed that the “status quo” would help no one.
“Yes we should try to strengthen affordable housing, but when it comes to rezoning, we can control for permanent affordability,” said Schlotman.
To be a member of the community board, one must “live, work, or have an otherwise significant interest in the neighborhoods served by the community board,” according to recruiting materials from the borough president’s office. Board member Marie Winfield told City Limits that board members should disclose where they live so it is clearer how they may be affected by a rezoning.