Brownstone Residents Oppose Construction of Affordable Housing on 123rd Street
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — A plan to build an 8-story affordable housing building on a parking lot on 123rd Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards, has divided a community.
On one side are the residents of the brownstones that line 123rd Street, who say the building, to be built by the Abyssinian Development Corporation and used to relocate residents from the adjacent and decrepit low-rise Ennis Frances Houses, is out of character with their neighborhood.
On the other side, literally on 124th Street, are Ennis Frances residents who say they deserve decent and affordable housing.
Simmering beneath the surface is a resentment representative of the gentrification and class issues in Harlem where pricey brownstones and new construction stand next to public housing.
That resentment finally exploded Wednesday night at a raucous Community Board 10 meeting where the two sides shouted at one another — and a few people almost came to blows — before the board overwhelmingly endorsed the plan with a 24 to 3 vote.
"It's a class issue and it's a color issue: Green," said Kim Smith, a 17-year resident of Ennis Frances Houses. "They feel as if they have some money and their brownstones and we are poor, ignorant Negroes. We may not make $100,000, but we are decent people who want the best for our children."
But it's not just about white people taking over the neighborhood — blacks and whites from 123rd Street oppose the plan.
At the meeting they complained about drug sales and violence at Ennis Frances Houses as they fended off hecklers who criticized them for being newcomers to the neighborhood.
That criticism prompted black 123rd Street homeowner Susan Myles to explain that she is a fourth generation Harlem resident whose grandmother worked on 125th Street when it was predominantly white.
"I do understand the concerns," she said.
The new 8-story, 60-unit building with 37 underground parking spaces will be built on the site of what is now a parking lot on 123rd street. After the building is completed in two years, residents from Ennis Frances will be relocated to the high-rise and Abyssinian would commence another 8-story 220-unit building on that site.
123rd Street residents said they are concerned about the size of the building, the traffic it might bring and the possibility of the Ennis Frances Houses being left vacant while Abyssinian Development completes a plan to redevelop the building.
"The scale of this project is found on the boulevard and not in the middle of a block full of brownstones," said 123rd Street resident Opal Lynton. "The proposed building is irresponsible and fails to show contextual respect for our neighborhood."
Steven Whitter, president of the 124th Street Block Association said he was concerned about the density of the project.
"If you look at the second and third phase of this project you are talking about double the number of residents," he said.
Sheena Wright, Abyssinian Development's CEO, said the new building is desperately needed because of the crumbling conditions that Ennis Frances residents are living in. The new building is part of a three-part plan enacted when Abyssinian took over the building from the city in 2004. The first phase was the renovation of the 11-story Ennis Frances Tower on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
"The residents in the low-rises deserve a high-quality and standard of living...so they can enjoy the rebirth of Harlem," Wright said. "We want to make sure there is a balance. We all have to live in harmony."
Wright said she said she expects construction on the site to be completed by 2014.
Community Board 10 chair W. Franc Perry said he voted "yes" because of the strong support from Ennis Francis residents.
Reaction on the street was mixed.
"I hate it. The block is beautiful the way it is with all the brownstones," said Vesha Wright, 27, a dispatcher. "Harlem is changing. Everywhere you look there are 8 to 10 story buildings going up."
However, Richard Burns said the development was just part of the neighborhood's growth.
"Twenty years ago there were a whole lot of empty and abandoned buildings and now they're sold," said Burns, who has lived on the block for two decades. "This might be good."
With the Community Board's approval, the project now goes to the City Planning Commission and the City Council for final approval.