EAST HARLEM — A controversial plan to bring three schools and a 68-story residential tower to a stretch of East 96th Street was overwhelmingly approved by the local community board this week — despite the developer not committing to shorten the "frightening" high-rise or increase its affordable housing.
Members of East Harlem's Community Board 11 voted 26 to 8 Tuesday to green light the project, while adding in a number of stipulations based on the community's concerns over the amount of affordable housing, the size of the tower and the expected influx of people to the area.
The $950 million redevelopment plan for 321 E. 96th St., between First and Second avenues, would include the mixed-income residential tower with more than 1,000 units, 30 percent of which would be permanently affordable.
The project also includes a new building for the School of Cooperative Technical Education, as well as another to be shared by the Heritage School and Park East High School to share. Finally, the development will include retail space and an upgrade of the Marx Brothers Playground.
Board members requested that developer AvalonBay Communities reduce the height of the high-rise and increase the amount of affordable housing to 50 percent, but a representative for the developer would not commit to anything at the meeting.
Other conditions requested by the board include hiring East Harlem residents for jobs throughout the construction process, allocating funds for OSHA and construction training, a written commitment with the Department of Education to give East Harlem students priority for enrollment at the schools, and constant contact with the East Harlem community.
Martin Piazzola, senior vice president of AvalonBay Communities, said the company will continue to work with the city's Educational Construction Fund, local elected officials and community leaders to "realize the numerous improvements this project will bring to the neighborhood including three new high schools, hundreds of permanent affordable housing units for low- and moderate-income families, and new retail space along Second Avenue.”
“We are gratified by the community board's action to move this important project forward," he said, without addressing requests about reduction of the tower's height or the inclusion of more affordable housing.
Another rep for the developer said on Thursday that the board's recommendations "are an important part of the ongoing approval process."
"AvalonBay is committed to working with the community toward achieving the goals reflected in those recommendations," said spokesman David Simpson.
During a public hearing prior to the vote Tuesday, local resident Andrea Davis called the high-rise "a behemoth," a "huge monstrosity," and said that it "doesn't belong anywhere near here."
"Nobody wants a 68-story building except Avalon," said 96th Street resident Rebecca Conner, referring to the developer. "There has to be another way to support [the students] and give [them] what [they] need without the community suffering."
Lo van der Valk, president of the group Carnegie Hill Neighbors, said the tower would be the tallest building in the area.
"It’s taller than Mt. Sinai Hospital and its tower built nearby... it would be taller than anything on the Upper East Side," he said, adding that there should be attempts to reduce the size of the tower.
"Architects are hired to solve those problems," he said. "Set it back 50 feet so it creates less of an impact… without reducing the benefit to the community."
Others questioned the ability of the neighborhood to handle the influx of thousands more students and residents once the buildings open in the next four to six years. They noted that a study of the Second Avenue Subway's impact on the neighborhood hasn't been done and that there's already too much traffic with an entrance to the FDR Drive nearby.
But students from both Park East and Heritage high schools pleaded with the community board to approve the project because their respective schools lack enough space for the number of students and their programs. One Heritage student said his gym doubles as the school's cafeteria and that "we eat where we sweat."
"Last year, when they told us we would have a new building, everyone had inspiration to do something," said Heritage sophomore Shane Lauderdale. "Our school is in the middle of a war zone... if we get out and have a bigger school, we're going to want to stay in there, where we see nothing but positivity."
The developer still needs a host of approvals for the project, including zoning amendments and special permits, before it can head to the City Council for a vote.