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East Harlem Zoning Plan Envisions Commercial Corridor, Affordable Housing

By Jeff Mays | January 30, 2013 6:48am
 La Marqueta, under the Metro-North railway tracks between East 111th and East 116th streets on Park Avenue.
La Marqueta, under the Metro-North railway tracks between East 111th and East 116th streets on Park Avenue.
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DNAinfo/Yepoka Yeebo

HARLEM — A proposed zoning plan for East Harlem would create a commercial corridor along Park Avenue and allow taller buildings in exchange for permanently affordable housing units.

The plan, approved by Community Board 11, suggests zoning changes for a 60-block area that stretches along Madison, Park and Lexington avenues between East 115th and East 132nd streets.

The area has not been rezoned since 1961.

"We took an holistic approach and looked at how we could balance goals such as affordable housing while having responsible businesses working with their neighbors and ensuring a high quality of life," said CB 11 Chairman Matthew Washington.

To assemble the plan, CB 11's Land Use Committee worked with planning firm George M. Janes & Associates and Civitas, a group that works to improve the quality of Upper East Side and East Harlem neighborhoods, to hold several town hall-style forums, listening session and walking tours.

 La Marqueta has long served this neighborhood's diverse and changing population.
La Marqueta has long served this neighborhood's diverse and changing population.
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"The plan is site-specific and incorporates what people said they wanted to see for the future of the neighborhood," said Hunter Armstrong, executive director of Civitas. "Madison Avenue has a very different nature than Park Avenue. This plan responds to the fact they are quite different and have different futures."

Under the proposal, Park Avenue would be rezoned to encourage light industrial and residential uses. The zoning for East 116th Street would include medium density contextual development to allow for the creation of affordable housing. Upper Madison Avenue would be down-zoned to help preserve the existing low-rise structures and neighborhood character.

A stretch of Park Avenue from East 117th to East 120th streets would encourage commercial development along the Park Avenue Metro-North rail line, using the only zoning designation that responds to an elevated rail corridor. Under that zoning, buildings are set back on the sidewalk to provide more space for pedestrians to walk, and the residential units start at heights above the rail line.

"You go to neighborhoods like DUMBO with elevated subways and it's quite loud but there are thriving neighborhoods," Armstrong said. "We are trying to be fine-grained and site specific."

One of the biggest concerns during the listening process was what to do about Park Avenue under the Metro-North viaduct. The plan tries to address residents' concerns about the dark, sometimes dirty area under the elevated tracks by encouraging commercial development in the area.

The previous zoning in East Harlem was broad and catered to towers in the park-style developments that now dominate much of the neighborhood. Armstrong said he heard a willingness from area residents and stakeholders to try a different approach.

"They are not shrink-wrapping East Harlem — they want to see change," Armstrong said.

Next up, the planners will develop a written narrative policy to present along with the plans to the Department of City Planning, which must approve any zoning changes. Armstrong said he hopes all the outreach that has been done will help ease the process of the plan's formal review, which will require another period of public comment.

"This was an important first step and a great effort from the community board to not wait on City Planning but to say, 'This is the zoning we want to see in our community,'" Washington said.