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Locals Raise Concerns Over East River Plaza Residential Towers

By Gustavo Solis | August 11, 2014 8:52am
  Part of the East River Plaza project is to continue to enhance quality of life around Pleasant Avenue by creating accessible open spaces for the entire community,   said Melissa Burch of Forest City Ratner.
Part of the East River Plaza project is to continue to enhance quality of life around Pleasant Avenue by creating accessible open spaces for the entire community,  said Melissa Burch of Forest City Ratner.
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Handout/Forest City Ratner Companies

EAST HARLEM — Pleasant Avenue residents fear the 1,000-unit residential towers slated to be built atop the East River Plaza mall could disrupt their quiet corner of East Harlem.

Blumenfeld Development Group and Forest City Ratner Companies, which owns the mall on 116th Street, have been meeting with locals to gather input since announcing their proposal in July.

Under their plan, the entrance of the residential towers would be on 118th Street, which is now a quiet cul de sac with a cobble stone street.

“The block I live in, the dead end block, is going to be their driveway,” said Joseph Delerme, a lawyer who has lived on that block his entire life.

Other concerns are that the new development will take away the little parking spots residents already have, make the streets unsafe for pedestrians and not have enough affordable housing, Delerme, 31, said.

The project is still in the preliminary stages and Blumenfeld and Forest City have made a point to include the community in their planning process.

They hosted a town hall meeting in July, in which they shared some early renderings of the project and asked the community for feedback. They also disclosed that they had filed paperwork with the City Planning department for the project in April.

The developers have proposed a 75-25 percent split of market rate and affordable apartments — which is more than the standard 80-20.

They also plan to turn the cul de sac on 118th Street into a community plaza filled with open space and small businesses that everyone in the neighborhood can enjoy, said Melissa Burch of Forest City Ratner.

The developers envision a place where East Harlem kids can grow up, go to college, come back to the same building and get a studio, work in the community, then upgrade to a bigger place when he or she starts a family, said David Blumenfeld, a vice president at the development group.

While they submitted a form to City Planning, Blumenfeld and Forest City have not submitted an Environmental Impact Statement or even started the ULURP process, a Forest City Ratner spokeswoman said.

They are working with Community Board 11, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez to schedule another round of public meetings in the fall. 

“Three to six months from now the pictures may be different,” Burch said.

But some community members believe it has always been their plan to build the residential towers and they have no interest in being good neighbors.

"This was already their intention,” said filmmaker and activist Andrew Padilla. “The [mall] is already retrofitted for this."

Further proof is that they submitted documents to City Planning before meeting with the public in July, he argued. The developers are only reaching out to the community because they need their support for tax breaks and re-zoning, he added.

Others are hopeful that Blumenfeld and Forest City listen to the community that has seen a growing number of developers knock on their doors.

“It’s great to know that you are in an area that’s attractive, sure,” Delerme said. “Nobody used to be interested in East Harlem. Now that the rest of Manhattan is tapped out in terms of development East Harlem is becoming a land grab.”

He has been meeting with locals to come up with a proposal of ideas they would like to see implemented as the project moves ahead.

Some of their proposals include following the 50/30/20 affordable housing model, creating a small vocational school, a fund for small business owners in the area, and helping preserve an existing community garden on Pleasant Avenue, he said.

“There’s nothing wrong with economic development as long as it’s done right, with the interest of the community, quality of life and the preservation of what the community represents,” Delarme said.