Lenox Terrace Residents Fight Proposal to Add Towers to Complex
HARLEM — Residents of Lenox Terrace, a six-building middle-class rental enclave in Central Harlem, say they are overwhelmingly opposed to a plan by the owners to rezone the complex and build six new taller residential towers.
A survey taken by the Lenox Terrace Association of Concerned Tenants found that 78 percent of respondents were against the plan by owners, the Olnick Organization.
"It erodes the character of the neighborhood," said Delsenia Glover, a tenant advocate and past president of the Lenox Terrace Association of Concerned Tenants who has lived in the complex since 1981. "The dust and construction would last years in a place that has 30 percent elderly residents."
Various versions of the plan at the complex where Rep. Charles Rangel and former Gov. David Paterson live have been under consideration for at least five years.
Some existing retail spaces at the complex have closed and a lot on the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue has remained vacant for a decade after the restaurant there burned down in 2004.
Residents are initiating another push against the plan and the proposed commercial rezoning after meeting with the owners recently and reviewing the latest proposal.
Under the plan, which was presented to the executive committee of the tenants association, the complex, located between 132nd and 135th streets between Lenox Avenue and Fifth Avenue, will gain six new residential rental towers, according to those who have seen the plan.
The new buildings could be up to 28 stories tall, compared to the current 17-story towers. They would add 1,100 apartments, 20 percent of which would be priced as affordable.
The proposed commercial zoning will allow for taller two-story retail structures along Lenox Avenue from 132nd to 135th streets that could house stores such as Marshall's. On top of the commercial space would be two to three additional stories of apartments.
A 548-space underground parking garage and landscaped park are also included in the proposal. Residents say they were told the overall development would be done in phases and could take eight years or longer to complete.
"I'm afraid I'm going to die with all the building that would be going on at Lenox Avenue. It's already dusty enough," said Margaret Johnson, 64, a retired city bus driver who has lived in the complex since 1963 and suffers from a respiratory illness.
"I may have to move and I know of other people who would be in the same situation," she added.
The Department of City Planning said there are currently no proposals to rezone the property up for consideration.
The Olnick Organization did not respond to multiple interview requests. In the past they have said the upgraded retail, park space and underground garage would benefit current residents.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it clear that he is willing to accept taller buildings to reach his goal of creating or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing. Even without the proposed zoning change, the Olnick Organization could dramatically add to the complex, according to the tenant's organization.
Five new 16-story apartment buildings along with two-story commercial spaces on the perimeter of the project and 218 aboveground parking spaces could be built "as of right."
Residents say that's more than enough.
"What they are proposing is more aggressive than what's happening on 125th Street," said Savanna Washington, a professor at the City University of New York who has lived at the complex for four years.
Nearby are complexes with similar designs to Lenox Terrace such as Savoy Park.
"If this is a precedent for rezoning Central Harlem in this way then other landlords could just jump on board," said Edward Dew, 58, an architect who has lived at Lenox Terrace for 7 years.
A development of the size that's being proposed would also change the already bustling area even more by making it into a commercial hub.
"The bulk alone of what they are proposing is too much," said Dew, who called the existing buildings an excellent example of mid-century modern architecture.
"Walking along Lenox Avenue and then seeing this space arise is such a surprise. If this goes through we would be losing a lot of this area's character," he added.
Politicians such as state Sen. Bill Perkins have expressed disapproval of the proposal.
"The proposed rezoning and redevelopment plan is not in the best interest of the Harlem community," said Perkins. "It is time to put our collective foot down and preserve the livable character of our neighborhoods, not turn them into Times Square north."
Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who represents the area and whose support would be considered in granting zoning changes, said she has urged Lenox Terrace tenants to negotiate because the Olnick Organization can already build a considerable amount without land-use changes.
"They can build as of right but everything is negotiable," said Dickens. "If tenants don't want to sit at the table there is nothing I can do."
Dickens said the proposed development is one of the reasons there needs to be a new zoning plan put in place for Central Harlem.
"All of Harlem needs to be rezoned, but people are scared of change. They are frightened they will be replaced," said Dickens.
For longtime tenants such as Glover, that fear is real.
She said tenants like her have been drawn to Lenox Terrace since it opened in 1958 because of the design and remained through good times and bad because of the family atmosphere.
"It's like an oasis in the city," said Glover. "People have remained here for decades making this complex as great as it is and now it seems like it's profit over people."