Abigail Savitch-Lew

Erik Olson of the Department of City Planning presents the city's proposed rezoning of East Harlem to the City Planning Commission for ULURP certification on April 24, 2017.

On Monday, the Department of City Planning (DCP)’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem entered the seven-month public review process known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Because the city has sped East Harlem ahead of other rezonings, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will be sure to have the final word on the future of her district before she is termed out of office at the end of 2017.

This is the third of about a dozen potential neighborhood rezonings that the de Blasio administration has taken into the formal land-use review process. East New York was rezoned a year ago and a plan to rezone Downtown Far Rockaway is in the pipeline now.

The recently released Draft Environmental Impact Statement states that the rezoning is expected to encourage the creation of 3,488 units of housing and 1,543 permanent jobs in an area roughly bounded by East 104th Street, East 132nd street, 2nd Avenue and Park Avenue. The document also notes that those totals are even higher when you add in the 100 percent rent-restricted development planned for the city-owned 111th Street Ballfields site, which is slated to bring another 655 units and 531 jobs to the rezoning area. The site-specific development proposal also entered ULURP Monday.

According to DCP planners at a presentation to the City Planning Commission on Monday afternoon, the rezoning aims to address multiple objectives: Relieve real-estate pressures in the area by creating rent-restricted housing through the application of the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, promote economic development especially near transit nodes, preserve the character of certain blocks, create a zoning framework that makes provisions for future infrastructure needs, and use “urban design controls”—a set of nuanced regulations—to meet a variety of neighborhood goals. For instance, the plan would establish special bulk and design regulations, as well as discourage hotel development by requiring hotel developers obtain a permit.

DCP planners emphasized their proposal was the result of careful consideration of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, a comprehensive, multi-topic proposal crafted by a team of steering committee members appointed by Mark-Viverito. DCP officials also noted that the zoning recommendations are only one part of a larger set of investments and initiatives that multiple agencies will offer to East Harlem.

DCP did not, however, describe the differences between their own plan and the steering committee’s plan. Though at the December scoping hearing the steering committee took issue with a number of aspects of the city’s plan—including the narrower geographic boundaries and the higher densities on certain avenues—the plan DCP presented on Monday had not been altered in response to these concerns. And, of course, the opposition of some residents to any rezoning of the neighborhood was never mentioned.

Exacerbated Residential Displacement Not A Concern, Analysis Says

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement found that the rezoning would not have a “significant adverse impact” on direct or indirect residential and business displacement.

Direct residential displacement is due to the demolition of existing buildings when property owners take advantage of a new rezoning. When 500 or more residents are displaced by demolition, the city considers this a “significant adverse impact.”

The city expects the rezoning could directly displace the residents of four apartments in the commercial buildings on Third Avenue between 123rd Street and 124th Street, as well as all the residents of seven apartments at 242 East 106 Street. According to the Rent Guidelines Board, 242 East 106 Street is a rent-stabilized apartment building. After the publication of this article, Lott Community Development
Corporation told City Limits that Lott owns that building and do not intend to demolish or redevelop it. DCP says they’re looking into the

The city also projects the direct displacement of 14 businesses and an estimated 209 jobs in the fields of construction, retail trade, educational services, food services, and other services

But critics say the city’s environmental review method underestimates the number of sites that could be demolished for development.

The city also determined there would be no significant indirect displacement—displacement due to rising rents. The EIS notes that a great majority of apartments in Community District 11 enjoy some sort of protection from the whims of the market: 30 percent are managed by NYCHA, 30 percent are government-assisted and 15 percent are rent-stabilized.

“While the Proposed Actions could add new population with a higher average household income as compared with existing study area households, there is already a readily observable trend toward higher incomes and new market-rate residential development in the study area,” the EIS states. “The Proposed Actions would be expected to introduce more affordable housing than conditions in the future without the Proposed Actions. In this respect, the Proposed Actions could serve to maintain a more diverse demographic within the study area as compared with the future without the Proposed Actions, in which projects will continue the trend toward rising residential rents….”

Ahead of the 2016 East New York rezoning the city conducted a full study of indirect residential displacement. DCP determined, however, that its preliminary analysis of East Harlem showed that no further study was necessary.

The Environmental Impact Statement also says the rezoning would not lead to overcrowding in libraries, child-care facilities and schools, with both elementary schools and middle schools to remain below a 100 percent utilization rate.

The city found the rezoning could result in shadows on El Catano Garden, Eugene McCabe Field and Jackie Robinson Garden, “great enough to significantly impact the use of the open space or its ability to support vegetation.” There could also be significant impacts on architectural and archeological resources, public transit, road and pedestrian traffic, and noise levels (due to construction). In addition, the development of the 111th street ballfields site is expected to result in a significant reduction of open space. DCP says it will continue exploring mitigation measures with sister agencies.

Commissioners dig in

At Monday’s meeting, several City Planning Commissioners indicated they were impressed by the complexity of DCP’s plan, but some had question about the details of the proposal and the methods of environmental review. Commissioner Michelle de la Uz, concerned about an underestimation of potential displacement, asked the city to research the location of rent-stabilized units, whether the government-assisted units are owned by nonprofit or for-profit housing companies, and when the regulatory agreements for such government-assisted units are set to expire.

“I’ve seen the demolition of sound rent-rent regulated housing as an unintended consequence [of rezoning] and our [City Environmental Quality Review] analysis does not point that out,” she said.

De la Uz also requested additional information on the existing industrial businesses that could be affected by the conversion of Park Avenue from industrial and auto-related zoning to mixed-use zoning. The city expects the rezoning will lead to a decrease in auto-related space but an increase in industrial space. The mixed-use zone would come with provisions require that a portion of space remain non-residential, but it’s still possible that other commercial or community facility uses could outcompete manufacturing for these non-residential spaces.

Commissioners also raised concerns with the lack of height limits in certain development options, that ground-floor commercial requirements were mapped in unsuitable places and would not help to strengthen existing commercial corridors, and that the Metro-North viaduct on Park Avenue would be a unpleasant divider, among other concerns. There were also calls that other city agencies release their plans for the neighborhood as soon as possible.

Under ULURP, the proposal will now head to the local Community Board and then the Borough President’s office for advisory votes before being taken up by the City Planning Commission and then the City Council where, by custom, the body votes according to the wishes of the member in whose district a proposal falls—in this case, the outgoing speaker.

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A summary of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement can be viewed here. The full document is available here. The proposal will now be reviewed and voted upon by Community Board 11. The board will hold a public hearing on May 16, 6:30 pm at the Siberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, 2180 3rd Avenue..