HARLEM — A developer was given the green light to build two 32-story apartment towers in East Harlem this week by guaranteeing construction and retail jobs for residents.
East Harlem's Community Board 11 approved a variance on Tuesday that will allow the towers to go up at Park Avenue and 125th Street with less parking than required by zoning laws and with fewer guaranteed affordable housing units than the board had originally wanted. In exchange, the developer agreed to earmark certain jobs for locals.
The board had demanded that Ian B. Eichner's Continuum Company build more than the approximately 65 to 70 guaranteed units of affordable housing out of the 650 units planned for the $415 million, 600,000-square-foot development. The company said all the affordable units would be in just one tower at 1800 Park Ave.
After spending $66 million to buy the parcel from Vornado Realty Trust in October, representatives for the developer said it was unclear if there would be enough money to add any affordable housing to the second tower.
"No one has paid $66 million for a piece of dirt in Harlem in the history of Harlem," William Wallace IV, senior finance and acquisitions officer for Continuum Company, told CB 11 last month in explaining why the company would not guarantee affordable housing in the second tower.
CB 11 chairman Matthew Washington said the board overwhelmingly approved the plan after Continuum agreed to a "commitment to explore increased affordability options" in the second tower.
"There is a give and take," said Washington. "We felt that jobs and hiring are important needs for our community."
Under the agreement, which Continuum is scheduled to sign this week, the company will partner with Positive Workforce to ensure that 35 percent of the construction workers hired come from the community and that 35 percent of all construction spending be done with local firms.
Once the building is completed, Continuum will hire a firm to help them make sure 50 percent of the staff hired to run the building are also locals.
The company also plans to include a local hiring clause for tenants who rent the 70,000 square feet of retail space, similar to the East River Plaza mall at 116th Street and the FDR Drive, where 60 percent of retail hires were supposed to come from the community.
In exchange, CB 11 granted its support for Continuum's variance to reduce the amount of parking on the site by half.
Instead of building 254 parking spaces as required by zoning, the company wants to have 127 spaces. Less parking will allow for more retail space and save on construction costs.
Continuum also argued that amount of parking was not necessary because the project is located at a transit hub that includes the subway, Metro-North and city buses.
But even with the developer agreeing to concessions on hiring, there are no guarantees.
At East River Plaza, the stores have been unable or unwilling to reach or maintain the promised level of local hiring.
At Columbia University's Manhattanville campus expansion project, local community groups questioned whether the school is meeting minority hiring goals it agreed to in a community benefits deal.
Columbia says it surpassed the goals.
At Tuesday's CB 11 meeting, some board members said there should have been a stronger push to secure more guaranteed affordable housing units.
"I wanted them to commit to the entire project being affordable," said Y. Andre Vital, an East Harlem lawyer and member of the community board who said he now feels more comfortable with the agreement given the hiring goals.
Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens says she made it clear to the developer's representatives and CB 11 that she wanted 50 percent affordable housing in the first tower.
"The second tower was moot to me because it's not on the drawing board yet. We are really talking about pie in the sky," said Dickens.
"I feel good about the hiring. Do I feel good about the 20 percent affordable housing [in the first tower]? No," she added.
Some CB 11 members disagreed. Holley Drakeford, a broker with Giscombe Realty Group who focuses on Harlem, said it's important to look at the empty lot that's there now.
"If we scare the developers out of here we'll never have anything there except homeless guys living under the viaduct," Drakeford said of the area, which has drawn complaints about the homeless and nearby drug treatment centers. "We are looking to improve the neighborhood by bringing in jobs and income."
CB 11 member and housing advocate Alvin Johnson said it's now up to the board to make sure Continuum lives up to its promises.
"I will certainly be watching to see if they follow through on their commitment for affordable housing," said Johnson.