HARLEM — Most of the zoning for a 60-block area in East Harlem caters to "tower in the park" developments, large high-rises surrounded by open space and greenery typified by many public and private housing complexes in the neighborhood.
But as East Harlem changes, that vision for the city — planned in the 1950s — is "not the future," said George Janes of the planning firm George M. Janes & Associates at a recent public workshop.
"Once you come up with a vision, the zoning can help implement that vision. The vision is more important than the zoning," Janes said.
That's why Janes, along with Community Board 11 and Civitas, is working to put forward a new rezoning plan for the 60-block area. Impending development, parking, commercial projects and affordable housing are all critical issues, Community Board 11 chairman Matthew Washington said.
"The community board wants to take a hard look at what's currently happening in the community and plan for the future," Washington said. "We want to control development and support the present and future needs of our community."
The area in question hasn't been rezoned since 1961. The 2003 rezoning of 52 blocks east of Lexington Avenue and the 2008 rezoning of East 125th Street have been the only major rezoning efforts since the 1960s.
Back then, clearing tenements and creating modern apartment buildings and superblock developments that removed streets from the grid and created open-space plazas was indicative of city planning.
Today, contextual zoning, where the building's scale and height "reinforce the prominent form of the neighborhood," is the standard, Civitas Executive Director Hunter Armstrong said.
"With rezoning there is the administration top-down approach, where it is initiated by the city or by developers for individual parcels," said Armstrong."We are using the third model, where the community initiates the rezoning."
Community workshops have been held since July, and the group unveiled several initial ideas at a workshop at the Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem earlier this week.
Janes presented the audience with five different visions for ways to address zoning within the 60-block swath that stretches from Madison, Park and Lexington avenues between East 115th and 132nd streets.
The first proposal involves a modernization that would leave much of the "towers in the park" zoning in place, with minor tweaks.
"You essentially stay out of the way of the good things happening," Janes said.
A second proposal would downsize the zoning height limits. The area in question currently has the potential for more than 3 million square feet of new floor space. This is because current zoning has no height restrictions, opening the door for developers to demolish existing structures to build larger ones.
A plan that includes height restrictions "shrink wraps" the area and would protect the neighborhood feel of East Harlem, including the smaller apartment buildings and corner bodegas, Janes said.
"It's an effective way to remove any incentive to demolish what's there to build larger," he said.
Under the height-limit proposal, the potential for 2 million square feet of development space would be removed and the manufacturing district would be slightly enlarged.
As part of a third economic-development model, a mixed-use commercial district featuring manufacturing, residential and commercial spaces would be created in the northern part of the 60-block area.
Developers would be required to use ground-floor space for non-residential uses and the buildings would be brought closer to the street, which is more in line with urban design, planners said. Commercial development would be encouraged along East 116th Street.
A fourth rezoning plan places the focus on housing, and would create millions more square footage in floor space.
"Many of the housing units in the area are 80 years old," Janes said. "While there is affordable housing, it still doesn't meet the demand."
This proposal would offer mixed-use projects, and even allow developers to build extra units if they include permanent affordable housing.
The fifth option presented was a hybrid zoning plan that would incorporate elements from each proposal and allow zoning to be tailored to the area's needs at the block level.
For example, the Metro-North viaduct along Park Avenue would be placed in a special commercial zone that would allow for stores, office and commercial uses that benefit visitors who have access to the area because of the train.
With complaints about safety along the Park Avenue viaduct, creating a plan for the area is a priority, Armstrong said.
"Park Avenue is calling out for a vision. It is devoid of development and, in many locations, devoid of activity and vitality," said Armstrong. "The more activity and vitality in a place, the safer it is."
Those present at the hearing expressed concern about everything from infill development at existing tower-on-the-park complexes to parking and the plans' impact on the neighborhood's current affordable housing.
Participants were given dots to post on sheets of paper with the zoning proposal they thought worked best. The hybrid plan, and the housing and economic development proposals were the most popular.
Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, a neighborhood advocacy group, said she was concerned there was too much of a focus on the Park Avenue Metro-North viaduct area. She argued that Lexington Avenue has the most potential for residential and commercial development.
There is also too much focus on large projects, she said.
"The market doesn't support the huge, monster projects. So there needs to be consideration for the people who already live in East Harlem by providing affordability and some commercial redevelopment," Ortiz said.
East Harlem resident Shawn Chin-Chance said he was concerned that many of the proposed zoning plans seem to ignore the issue of parking. New York City is moving away from requiring developers to include a certain percentage of parking in their projects, Janes said.
"It's a huge problem now finding parking, so imagine as the area grows and you have visitors not from the neighborhood and tourists," said Chin-Chance. "There are middle-income residents who live here and have a vehicle and you should want to respect that."
Armstrong said the goal is to have a plan together by early 2013. Janes said the final proposal will not likely be acted upon by city planning before Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office, but it would be helpful to have a proposal ready for the next mayor.
There are plans for more workshops to gather feedback from East Harlem residents, said LaShawn Henry, chair of Community Board 11's Zoning Task Force.