Abigail Savitch-Lew

The City Planning Commission, rightly expecting a large turnout for the East Harlem rezoning hearing, met at 1 Centre Street instead of their usual location.

At a City Planning Commission hearing for the de Blasio administration’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem on Wednesday afternoon, at least one resident, city agency staff, and a representative from the union 32BJ, turned up to express support for the rezoning, while the vast majority of residents and stakeholders who spoke expressed strong disapproval.

The Department of City Planning (DCP)’s controversial rezoning plan is one of three proposed neighborhood rezonings—the others are plans for Downtown Far Rockaway and Jerome Avenue—that are currently moving through the public review process through which a rezoning can become law (Read here about the difference between the City Planning Commission and DCP).

The plan for East Harlem has been particularly contentious. It would allow developers to build bigger buildings along several of East Harlem’s main avenues with a portion of the housing rent-restricted under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, and do several other things such as require ground-floor commercial in certain areas and preserve the built form of certain residential side-blocks. DCP claims its plan is based on the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan crafted by local councilmember Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and a team of stakeholders, but the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan participants don’t agree—and there are also residents who don’t think the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan accurately represented the community’s needs and that any rezoning will exacerbate gentrification and displacement.

While East Harlem’s community board has already voted no to the East Harlem, attaching a list of conditions, and Borough President Gale Brewer gave a firm no, both votes are only advisory. The City Planning Commission has the power to put the kibosh on the proposal, or to approve it and send it forward to City Council for review—and either way, it must make a decision by October 2. The commission will continue to accept written testimony until Tuesday, September 5; written comments can be submitted electronically through this comment form until “a week before the date of the vote”—a date still to be determined—and after that date to the City Planning Commission, Calendar Information Office, 120 Broadway, 31st Floor, New York, NY 10271.

DCP has acknowledged some of the issues raised by the public in the last few months. After hearing widespread concern that the plan could lead to 35-story buildings on parts of Park and Third Avenues, DCP is revising the proposed rezoning to include height limits (though keeping the same levels of allowable density) along several stretches of Park Avenue, ensuring buildings are no taller than 21 stories. Height limits would also be imposed in smaller portions of Lexington, Third and Second Avenue.

The administration is also going to greater lengths to publicize a variety of initiatives that the city is making in East Harlem, including a $275,000 grant award for health projects awarded in June and a $1.49 million grant for commercial revitalization efforts announced in March, a budgetary commitment to ensuring every classroom has air-conditioning by 2022, a new Workforce1 Center, multiple park and waterfront improvement and resiliency projects, and other efforts. At the hearing, commissioners and staff from a variety of the involved agencies testified in support of the rezoning and described their investments in the neighborhood.

Maria Torres-Springer, commissioner of the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), emphasized the multiple initiatives the agency is implementing as part of its plan to preserving existing affordable housing and protect tenants from displacement, including conducting block sweeps of buildings to determine current code enforcement issues, studying the possibility of a city-wide certificate of no harassment pilot program, and expediting 100 percent affordable housing projects, among several other initiatives.

“The needs in the neighborhood are quite stark. We know that market-rate development is already happening without a lot of affordability requirements, so the ability to move forward with the rezoning proposal, including the mapping of mandatory inclusionary housing, ensures that as the development happens moving forward that there will be permanently affordable units,” she said, stressing that outreach to help tenants, and to bring landlords into city regulatory programs, has already begun. “The novel approach is…to really ensure that the outreach [to landlords] is as one-on-one proactive, customized as possible.”

But almost all stakeholders that were not city employees spoke against the plan. Community Board Chair Diane Collier, Brewer and many members of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan steering committee protested that the city’s plan differed too much from the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. They noted that the city’s plan concentrated a large amount of density in a smaller area, while the neighborhood plan spread a modest amount of density—just enough to trigger the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy—over a larger area. They further argued that many of the neighborhood plan’s other recommendations related to jobs, NYCHA, and other neighborhood priorities had not been addressed.

Some said that they appreciated the city’s recent announcements—the addition of height limits, the new Workforce1center—but still weren’t swayed to support the rezoning. Technical experts expressed concerns that the city’s environmental assessment of the rezoning underestimated the potential for displacement and other negative effects.

Many residents—both those who were involved, and not involved, in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan—offered passionate testimony against a rezoning, citing personal stories of landlord harassment or NYCHA apartments in terrible condition, and some said they didn’t want a rezoning of any kind. East Harlem Preservation and the Justice Center in El Barrio said they’d collected 900 petition signatures opposing the rezoning in just two weekends.

“If you think for one minute that rezoning in East Harlem is going to make it so that we have less homeless students, you’re wrong…you’re absolutely voting to make my students homeless,” said a teacher and organizer with the Justice Center in El Barrio. “No amount of cultural programs, no amount of preserving things here and there is going to change that reality—that our people need affordable housing.”

Here are a few memorable moments:

NYCHA A NYCHA representative said the authority supported the rezoning—including the city’s plan to put commercial overlays alongside NYCHA to encourage commercial development—and mentioned the administration’s investments in security cameras, recycling, and job training in East Harlem’s NYCHA developments. But when commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron asked the representative to describe some of the capital needs of NYCHA’s East Harlem buildings, she said she hadn’t come prepared to list them—winning the audience’s outraged laughter. Resident Juan Peralta later retorted, as part of his testimony against a rezoning, “She’s talking about putting up cameras?…People are dying because of the black mold in the building.”

Community Planning George Janes, a land use consultant for community board 11, took a step back to look at the process. “While the current administration is undoubtedly better than the last one in terms of community engagement, I don’t think community planning or even well done community plans like the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan have a place of respect in our process. It’s an issue of culture,” he said. “We need to change this culture and embrace community planning.” Resident and activist Marina Ortiz, however, said both the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan and the city’s proposal were both “middle class housing plans” that do not reflect the needs of the community.

A Key Stakeholder Stands Against Community Voices Heard, a key participant in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, came out in full force against a rezoning, bringing a stack of 400 petitions calling for deeper affordability and jobs on public land. The group’s director wrote in a City Limits op-ed that “To have two people in a room, the mayor and City Council speaker, making last-minute deals would dishonor what has been, and what should remain, a community led process.”

A Key Stakeholder Has Time Conflict While members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio usually attend hearings in great numbers to testify against a rezoning of any kind, that was not the case on Wednesday. Over the weekend, the group sent a letter to CPC chair Marisa Lago expressing dismay that the hearing would be held outside the neighborhood and at a time when many of its members would be at work, and requesting that the hearing be rescheduled or that a second hearing be held in East Harlem and in the evening. DCP wrote to the group explaining that the meeting location had already been adjusted to accommodate a larger audience and make it accessible by public transit. The agency says it tries to hold hearings at accessible times and locations, but the City Planning Commission has limited flexibility.

Community Land Trusts HPD staff stressed their devotion to creating new tools to protect tenants, especially their recent investment of $500,000 in the East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust, which will help the land trust acquire two city-owned properties. But Lynn Lewis of the community land trust said they had ambition to play an even larger role—acquiring even more city-owned properties and also vacant land in the community.

Getting to the heart of the dispute Commissioner Irwin Cantor, an engineer, asked Brewer to explain why she would opt for a less dense rezoning. “I believe one of the reasons that these plans came to allow more bulk, more density is to … make it attractive to allow for developers to come in and build the affordable housing,” he said (the administration has also said in the past that a higher upzoning will allow the creation of more affordable units). Brewer’s response: she could see how a more modest rezoning would be an issue for developers looking to make a profit, but she’d like to see more nonprofits building.

Timing of the certificate of no harassment program Commissioner Michelle de La Uz asked HPD chief Torres-Springer whether it made sense to pass the rezoning before the city had finalized legislation for a potential certificate of no harassment pilot program, which would increase oversight of landlords seeking to demolish or renovate buildings in targeted areas. Torres-Springer said she believed “it’s certainly not the only thing that exists to accomplish the shared goals” of preventing harassment, and that the rezoning should go forward, but members of Community Voices Heard instead opposed a rezoning and wanted the certificate program enacted immediately.

Sendero Verde After about three and a half hours of testimony on the rezoning, representatives from Union Settlement and DREAM charter school, who spoke out against the rezoning, lent their support to the 100 percent affordable housing complex that the city and developers are planning for the ballfields at 111th street. The complex will include space for community gardens, Union Settlement’s services and a new DREAM school. There were also about nine people signed up to speak in opposition, but they had already left; Brewer earlier said she conditionally supported the project but would like to see nonprofits or community land trusts included in the development team and that not just 40 percent, but 100 percent, be guaranteed “permanently” affordable.