Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito in 2014. One of the speaker's final major acts before being forced from office by term limits in December will be to decide whether and how to rezone East Harlem.

On Monday, Department of City Planning (DCP) planners presented a few revisions to the agency’s East Harlem rezoning proposal.

DCP has proposed rezoning East Harlem to permit higher densities on certain key avenues in order to facilitate housing and economic growth, with a portion of the housing rent-restricted under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy. The administration says its plan is based off the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan created by a steering committee organized by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, but members of the steering committee have criticized the higher density levels proposed by the administration, and expressed other concerns. Other residents say any rezoning will lead to massive displacement and condemn both plans.

The City Planning Commission, which will vote on the administrastion’s proposal on October 2, convened on Monday to learn more about the plan. DCP planners announced new changes to the city’s proposal that they said “would maintain the strong planning rational that has guided the proposal thus far, while including an even more nuanced approach to height that incorporates the suggestions that we heard from the community.”

Anyone who has already expressed concern about 35-story buildings, however, is unlikely to be wowed by the revisions.

While City Limits and others have reported that buildings could be “up to 35 stories,” in fact, there were areas in the original proposal where there were no height limits. The new proposal would ensure all areas included a cap—some at 28 stories, some at 32 stories, and some at 35 stories. One transit node, the intersection of Park Avenue and 125th Street, would not be capped, and there would also be flexibility for buildings that include non-residential uses like subway entrances or commercial establishments.

Some might remember that on August 7, DCP announced they were filing a text revision (known, in zoning parlance, as an “A-text”) that would have imposed height limits of 17 stories and 21 stories in several areas. At the City Planning Commission hearing on August 23, some stakeholders like Borough President Gale Brewer praised the amendment, but said it was still not enough to win her support.

DCP planners explained on Monday that they had filed that amendment in order to study its environmental implications, but were not in fact recommending that amendment, and deemed those heights to be too low in many instances. DCP had predicted that the stricter height limits in the August amendment would have allowed the creation of 3,306 apartments, 182 less apartments than the original proposal. What’s more, city planners voiced concerns that imposing height limits that are too strict will encourage the demolition of existing buildings. Say a developer owns two lots, and one is empty and one has a small building. If there’s no height limit, the developer might preserve the existing building, merge the lots, and use the air rights from the smaller building to build higher on the empty lot. If there is a low height limit, however, it’s more likely the developer would choose to demolish the smaller building and redevelop both lots separately, planners said.

The DCP planners also noted on Monday that the neighborhood already has a lot of taller buildings in the neighborhood, like the Miles (28 stories), 1199 (30 stories), Fifth on the Park (32 stories) and the 35-story Taino Towers. They also want to ensure the proposal fully meets their goals of creating a significant amount of income-targeted housing and spurring economic development. Still, they said they recognized the community’s concerns about skyscrapers, and their new proposal would ensure most of the new developments couldn’t be taller than Taino Towers.

But as questions at Monday’s hearing indicated, height isn’t everything. “Height limits certainly address one of the things that we heard from the community but isn’t the fundamental problem the additional density that you are proposing here?” asked Commissioner Anna Levin after the presentation, adding that residents are concerned that more density will increase market-pressure and lead to displacement.

Her remark references the fact that height is one aspect of density, but floor area ratio, a measurement of total building floor area to the area of a lot, is another. The administration is not making changes to the zoning districts, so the allowable floor area ratios will remain the same, encouraging wider but shorter buildings.

DCP staff replied to Levin that the best way to address the issue of secondary displacement is through HPD’s accompanying preservation strategy (which includes resources to defend tenants from harassment and bring more landlords into affordability agreements, among other strategies).

Though it’s clear some commissioners have strong concerns, the City Planning Commission is likely to vote in favor of the proposal on October 2. Then it will be up to Mark-Viverito to ultimately negotiate with the mayor on the details of the proposal.

It seemed those negotiations were already beginning as of last Friday, when the mayor asked to attend a meeting of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan steering committee. After the meeting, which was relocated to Gracie Mansion to accommodate the mayor’s schedule, Mark-Viverito told City Limits it had been a good opportunity for the mayor to hear from constituents directly about their concerns. The mayor said he was listening and that changes to the plan would be made, but ultimately insisted on the validity and importance of upzoning, according to community advocates who were present.

Groups that were not part of the steering committee, like Movement for Justice in El Barrio or El Barrio Unite, were of course not present at the meeting.

City Limits learned of the meeting when Brewer issued a furious press release earlier in the afternoon saying that she’d been asked last minute by City Hall staff not to attend the meeting. A half hour before the meeting, Brewer tweeted, “I’ve spoken with City Hall and they have re-invited me to their meeting w/ the #EastHarlem Steering Committee. Misunderstanding behind us,” and would not comment further. Brewer has been in the spotlight in recent months because she has called for the rejection of the city’s rezoning plan.

The CPC will hold a hearing on Tuesday morning for the Bedford Union Armory redevelopment proposal, the National Black Theatre redevelopment proposal, and some other projects at 9 am, 1 Centre Street.