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Rezoning Committee Wants Businesses on Second Floors, Fewer Big Box Stores

By Gustavo Solis | December 9, 2015 5:48pm
 People were asked to mark places where they would like to see new development and spaces that they would like to preserve during a community workshop earlier this year.
People were asked to mark places where they would like to see new development and spaces that they would like to preserve during a community workshop earlier this year.
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DNAinfo/Gustavo Solis

EAST HARLEM — Putting businesses in second-floor retail space, encouraging commercial districts near NYCHA 'super blocks,' and limiting big-box retail spaces are a few recommendations trickling out of the Steering Committee tasked with helping rezone El Barrio.

On Tuesday two of the committee's subgroups  — Schools/Education and Economic Development — began sharing their ideas with Community Board 11.

They included a mix of zoning changes to encourage business growth and community needs like capital improvements for aging public schools.

“We need feedback on some of the recommendations that we’ve identified,” said George Sarkissian, who made the presentation. “We really want to know if something doesn’t make sense if there’s any recommendations that you think are missing. We really want your feedback."

The Economic Development subgroup identified East Harlem’s challenges as rising commercial rents, lack of employment opportunities and workforce training programs, and weak Internet infrastructure.

Their recommendations included amended zoning to increase the number of businesses, to develop a better mechanism to make sure developers hire locally, and to set aside money from public projects for job training programs similar to the “1 percent for art,” program.

Another suggestion was to utilize zoning to encourage commercial development to East 125th Street, the NYCHA “superblocks” along 112th and 115th streets, and the Harlem River waterfront. The recommendation about businesses on second floors is as long as they don't displace rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments.

The steering committee was silent on the issue of rising commercial rents, pointed out Community Board member Jose Altamirano.

To protect mom and pop businesses, he suggested some sort of tax abatement program similar to ones given to developers who build affordable housing.

“A lot of the issues that are affecting landlords is that their taxes go up, their property taxes go up so they have to offset that expense,” he said. “There is no added benefit to the landlord [to keep the business]. The trick here is to make a program that gives the landlord an actual benefit where he would say ‘I would prefer to give the space to a small business.’”

In January, the Steering Committee will continue to present their recommendations and ask for feedback at more Community Board 11 committee meetings.

Once they complete their rounds they will host a larger public meeting where they plan to go over all of the recommendations. The date of that meeting has not been announced.

The School/Education subgroup's recommendations included funding for more center-based programs for 0-3 year olds, upgrade decaying after school centers, and create more adult learning opportunities.

Although they did not deal superficially with rezoning, the Steering Committee’s goal is to address broader issues as well, Sarkissian said.

“The rezoning is what got this going but the planning effort is much broader," he said. "When we talk about community development in East Harlem it’s not just about what we build it’s about how we serve the neighborhood.”

During the meeting some criticized the process for its lack of youth participation. The group was originally called the Youth Schools and Education subgroup and of the 85 people who attended the public workshop, very few of them were young people.

“There was very little youth participation at the actual event and now ‘Youth’ has been taken off the title of the subgroup," said Marie Winfield. "I think a youth forum without youth is really problematic and it does set the context for the kind of recommendations that come back from the subgroup.”