Abigail Savitch-Lew

Members of the City Planning Commission on Monday Oct 2, 2017.

On Monday, the City Planning Commission approved the De Blasio administration’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem. There was one abstention and one vote against the proposal.

The approval means that the proposal will now move forward to the City Council for the last stage of the public review process. In the coming months, local councilmember and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will be negotiating with the mayor over the details of the plan. The City Council will hold a hearing on the proposal at noon on Wednesday October 11 in the City Hall Council Chambers.

If approved, the proposal for East Harlem would upzone major avenues while adding several other land controls, including contextual zoning on some blocks to protect the current character, a required percentage of income-targeted housing in all upzoned areas, commercial ground-floor uses, and other regulations. The Department of City Planning (DCP) has said its proposal aims to create affordable housing and promote economic development, comes with a suite of other city investments, and is closely based off the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan assembled by Mark-Viverito and a steering committee of stakeholders. But that steering committee has criticized DCP’s plan as too different from their own, while other local stakeholders who want no rezoning at all have instead proposed alternative plans.

At Monday’s meeting, Marisa Lago, DCP director and chair of the City Planning Commission, called DCP’s proposal a “nuanced and balanced approach that is responsive to the community’s plan.” She acknowledged that there were disagreements about building heights and that some residents wanted no rezoning at all, but emphasized that under the current zoning, there were no requirements for income-targeted housing at all.

Commissioner Michelle De La Uz voted against the proposal, noting the many concerns raised at the hearing about inadequate assessments of displacement, that the proposal didn’t do enough to provide housing for families making the lowest incomes, and the need for more investments in public housing. Commissioner Anna Levin, who abstained, also raised concerns about tenant protections, and while she acknowledged the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD)’s larger preservation plan for the neighborhood, said, “I don’t feel comfortable voting on the land use matters on the plan without these additional protections in place,” she said. Commissioner Larisa Ortiz, while voting in favor, emphasized the importance of the city creating a certificate of no harassment pilot program as an additional measure to prevent displacement.

A few community advocates in the audience were dismayed and left after the vote, chanting “Fight Fight Fight, Housing is a Right.”

“How can they say that they are for the people of East Harlem where they more or less voted for a plan that displaces them and destroys them,” said Mahfuzur Rahman to City Limits after the vote. “Right now you can see Puerto Ricans … sending aid all the way to Puerto Rico when the federal government offers none, and I’m hearing my own city right now telling them, ‘sure, we send that aid to Puerto Rico but we won’t give you aid nor will you give you the ability to stay here in your own neighborhoods.’”

The proposal adopted by CPC included some tweaks on height. In August, DCP studied an alternative to its original proposal where height limits of 17 to 21 stories would be imposed in several places, but ultimately did not recommend that alternative. Instead the City Planning Commission adopted a compromise between its original proposal and the alternative that would ensure no buildings were taller than 32-stories (with the exception of the intersection of Park Avenue and 125th Street, where there will be no height cap).

DCP released its Final Environmental Impact Statement on September 19, which details mitigation strategies for some of the negative impacts the city expects will occur as a result of the plan. (View the executive summary here.) DCP found ways to partially but not wholly mitigate the possible impacts of construction on historical sites and archeological resources, and the impacts of a population increase on transportation. There were no solutions found to mitigate the impact of shadows on three local parks and gardens, and no solutions found to mitigate high levels of construction noise.

The city does not expect the proposal will cause residential displacement due to rising rents and estimates that the families of 11 apartments will be displaced by redevelopment, though some advocates worry that the methodology the city uses may underestimate the potential for displacement.*

The Commission also voted unanimously to approve the redevelopment of the 111th Street ballfields into a 100 percent rent-restricted development, but Commissioner Levin noted the importance of ensuring regulations are in place to permanently protect the community gardens included in the plan and also called on the city to “redouble its efforts to improve affordability here so that this project serves the greatest number of current residents of East Harlem as possible.”

*Correction: City Limits incorrectly stated that the city’s environmental analysis had a confusing error even within the parameters of its own methodology—that the city’s prediction of what sites would be redeveloped included a rent stabilized building, though the city doesn’t usually consider rent-stabilized buildings as development sites, and furthermore, that it was owned by a nonprofit developer that already has stated it does not intend on demolishing. However, according to the city’s review methods there was no error made; this site meets the criteria for potential redevelopment sites for other reasons, regardless of the current non-profit owner. In this case, it was us who made the error.