HARLEM — A vague timeline for building apartments and shops on the site of an African Burial Ground discovered in East Harlem has been laid out by the city.
Central to the proposal will be a memorial to the dead who were buried there, they said.
Dozens of community members gathered Thursday at the Silberman School of Social Work at the City University of New York in East Harlem to hear about the history of the site.
The city's Economic Development Corporation hosted the public meeting along with the two community task forces that will advise on the development. The site, at East 126th Street and First Avenue, was formerly used as a bus depot.
The crux of the development is a memorial honoring the burial ground, which was discovered in the early 2000s and hold the remains of free and enslaved people of African descent. The city started work last year to preserve the site.
“This is an opportunity for us to create a meaningful memorial,” said EDC president Maria Torres-Springer.
“There wasn’t a plan, a way to honor the significance of this site.”
The burial ground dates back to 1660 when the village of New Harlem was incorporated and the Low Dutch Reformed Church of Harlem was built at the corner of First Avenue and 126th Street, according to the burial ground’s committee.
A portion of the property — a one-quarter acre lot — was set aside as a segregated cemetery, called the Negro Burying or Harlem African Burial Ground, which was used from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century, according to the group.
“They were displaced in death just as they were in life as slaves and as free men and women,” said East Harlem Community Board Chair Diane Collier.
“Their stories have been forgotten and this is time to make it right.”
Rev. Patricia Singletary, who leads the Elmendorf Reformed Church and is co-chair of the burial ground task force, said she has been impressed with what the city has done to ensure the remains are respected.
“They are the ones who built this village, they are the ones who built this city and they are the ones who built this great nation,” said Singletary whose church — in a past incarnation — once owned the cemetery centuries ago.
A lot about the project has yet to be determined, but the city said it is looking at about 1 million square footage of the area for the development.
The city said it wants to protect the sacredness of the site and figure out how a public memorial fits within an urban development site.
By early 2018, the city said, a developer would be chosen after a multi-step process to rezone and study the site with community input.
An indoor and outdoor memorial is being considered which will take up a total of more than 30,000 square feet.
There would be 655,215 square footage of residential space and 315,000 of commercial space. Half of the units in the residential building would be affordable, city officials said.
The residential portion could also include roughly 350 parking spaces. There’s no indication of the height of the project since it is in preliminary stages.
There would be no development on the actual cemetery, however. The city will have an archeologist on hand to monitor the construction if any additional bones are discovered, it said.
There were no intact remains found in four trenches excavated by the New York-based archeology group, AKRF, last year. The city said the cemetery was likely disturbed during post-1850 site modifications, but more remains could be found.
During the first archeological dig last year, 66 bones were discovered including a skull. The city said they are from at least two individuals.
The artifacts are currently being held in a climate-controlled office by the archeology group and will soon be preserved by the city Landmarks and Preservation Commission in the same storage facility where 9/11 artifacts are preserved.
On Sept. 27, the city will hold another public meeting regarding the environmental impact of the development.