Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

On Thursday morning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer announced that she was recommending a disproval—period—to City Hall’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem.

The city’s controversial rezoning proposal would, among other changes, increase allowable building heights in East Harlem to spur housing development, of which a portion would be rent-regulated under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy. Many residents are concerned the plan will cause gentrification, and at a hearing held by Brewer last month, many voiced frustration with Community Board 11’s vote of “no with conditions” and called on Brewer to vote a bolder “no with no conditions.”

Brewer presents her findings in a report that can be viewed here. In it, she says that she does support a rezoning of the neighborhood of some sort, especially as envisioned by the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan (ENHP) spearheaded by local councilmember Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Brewer and other community partners. Yet myriad problems with the administration’s current proposal, she explains, has caused her to recommend a definitive no:

“I support an East Harlem rezoning, but I cannot support the administration’s ULURP application. I support most of what is contained in the EHNP, although it is not perfect. When I supported the administration’s mandatory inclusionary housing program two years ago, I recognized that somewhat higher density would be required in order to build large amounts of new affordable housing. But the degree of density would have to be consistent with neighborhood context and community input. Here, the community gave extensive, thoughtful and informed input, but the administration could not see its way to support significant elements of the community’s recommendations, which forces me to recommend a disapproval of the application.”

Brewer respectfully describes the community board’s vote of “no with conditions” as a “show of faith with the extraordinary process that was the ENHP” while also acknowledging that some people still fear that the development proposed by the ENHP could exacerbate displacement. She maintains the ENHP planning process was “fair and comprehensive” and achieved “carefully balanced recommendations.”

Brewer writes that the city’s proposal added too much concentrated density, lacked sufficient units for the most low-income families, and failed to include an adequate preservation strategy and sufficient commitments to capital projects and programs outlined in the ENHP.

She commends HPD’s recent efforts to target East Harlem for increased building visits and enforcement, but says it’s unclear whether those efforts will continue, and she reiterates calls for an enactment of an Anti-Eviction/Anti-Harassment district.

Brewer also identifies the warehousing of rent-stabilized buildings by property owners as a major issue and says the city should consider “applying modified versions of their inclusionary housing program” to ensure these owners give back more affordable housing than required by the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy.

She reiterates the ENHP’s demand that “at least 50 percent of all units produced in East Harlem…be affordable to extremely low-income up to middle income residents and a minimum of 20 percent of those units…be affordable to those at or below 30 percent of AMI” and says that goal won’t be reached unless the city develops more public lots, commits to 100 percent affordability on those lots and works with mission-driven developers and community land trusts.

As for the rezoning itself, she calls for more expansive boundaries especially to ensure the hot-market areas between 96th street and 104th street are rezoned to require affordable housing, and expresses concerns about density and lack of height limits. She also highlights disagreements with the administration about the methods used for an environmental analysis of the plan, arguing that the city should consider rent stabilized buildings and houses of worship susceptible to development.

“Each one of these failings alone, while significant, might not be fatal. But in the aggregate, given the enormous study and work of the EHNP, a failure to address and incorporate the community’s concerns and recommendations puts the proposed proposal at odds with the community planning process,” Brewer writes.

In the hours following Brewer’s announcement, many residents took to Facebook and Twitter to praise Brewer for her decision.

“@galeabrewer Thank u for listening to the residents of El Barrio East Harlem and rejecting the rezoning plan,” tweeted organizer Jennifer Hadlock, while
Picture the Homeless tweeted, “AMAZING! Manhattan Borough Pres @galeabrewer opposes East Harlem rezoning, cites our work on vacancy & CLTS!!!”

Meanwhile, City Councilmember and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office took to twitter twice to remind constituents that she had spearheaded the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan that Brewer’s report holds up as the community’s legitimate vision.

“Speaker @MMViverito & the community built meaningful engagement w/ local #EastHarlem residents, biz & stakeholders.”

But some residents don’t support the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan and think any rezoning will pave the way for displacement—and Brewer’s emphasis on the plan’s merits did not escape their attention.

“Says she supports upzoning East Harlem but not @ lvl proposed by NYC #Gentrification,” wrote filmmaker Andrew Padilla on the twitter handle @ElBarriotours.

Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for City Hall, wrote in an e-mail to City Limits, “As we continue to engage in this critical public dialogue, this administration’s top priorities are affordable housing and protecting current tenants. We are working through issues raised by residents, community leaders and elected officials.”

The proposal next heads to the City Planning Commission for review. If approved by the commission, it will be sent to City Council.

The City Planning Commission hearing for the East Harlem rezoning proposal will be on Wednesday August 23, 2 p.m. at 1 Centre Street, Manhattan.