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East Harlem Rezoning and Housing Plans 'Land Grab for the Rich,' Locals Say

 Members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio held signs at the meeting opposing the rezoning.
Members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio held signs at the meeting opposing the rezoning.
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

EAST HARLEM — "Racist,” "immoral" and a "land grab for the rich" is how locals described the city's plan to rezone the neighborhood and build affordable housing at a public hearing Tuesday. 

The harsh words came during a Community Board 11 meeting that included presentations on both the rezoning proposal and a plan to to build a massive affordable housing development, called Sendero Verde, on East 111th Street.

Dozens of residents packed the room at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, booing and hissing at both proposals, saying they could prompt displacement of lifelong residents and exclude many low-income and working-class people.

Both proposals are undergoing the multi-step ULURP public review process, which requires evaluations by the community board, borough president, City Council and the mayor.  

The Sendero Verde project proposes bringing 655 below-market-rate units to the neighborhood, with 40 percent of the units permanently affordable and nearly 60 percent of the units below 60 percent of the area median income, according to reps at the meeting.

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A one-bedroom, for instance, would rent for as little as $418 a month, and the building would also include an outdoor public space, community gardens, a charter school and community fitness facilities, reps said.

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“What you are doing is beautiful, but it is not for us. It is going to displace us,” one resident told reps from L+M Development Partners, Johnathan Rose Companies and Handel Architects, which is leading the development of the project with the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation and Development.

“How are we supposed to fit into your plan?” the resident added. “You’re turning it into a Millionaires Row from what I see.”

Sarah Ashcroft, senior development manager for Jonathan Rose Companies, tried to quell residents’ concerns by saying they “are open to extending the affordability," but noted there are constraints due to funding sources. 

“You come in here and you build and you displace instead of creating low-income housing,” said resident Cecelia Grant, who is also a member of Picture the Homeless and Community Voices Heard.

“We are open to working with the city to push down that top tier of affordability,” Ashcroft responded.

Marina Ortiz, of East Harlem Preservation, also criticized the estimated $200 million project for including a tribute to the indigenous Lenape people, who once had a trail passing through the project site, calling it "racist," as well as "idiotic and offensive."

The meeting got more heat as residents offered remarks on the rezoning proposal, which would redraw large swaths of the neighborhood to allow for buildings as tall as 35 stories.

Some residents called on the city to abandon the proposal altogether, saying it negatively affects communities of color.

Dozens of members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio called the hearing a “sham” and offered its own 10-point rezoning plan.

“We are very different because we are people with dignity; we do not sell out, we do not capitulate,” said a member of the organization in Spanish, which was translated by an interpreter.

“The mayor’s plan is nothing more than a land grab for the rich.”

Roger Hernandez of El Barrio Unite likened the proposal to a “Trojan horse” and called for no rezoning of the neighborhood.

Representatives from the Department of City Planning said they were open to hearing residents’ concerns and possibly retooling the plan based on their reservations.

“We take these concerns very seriously. I’m listening and taking down notes," said City Planning rep Calvin Brown. 

“We work… to bring down those levels [of affordability] so we can reach those neighborhoods and residents who are most in need,” he added, referring to concerns over affordable housing.

But some residents demurred.

“I’m expecting that the community board will do the right thing and tell the city to piss off,” said Ortiz, of East Harlem Preservation. “El Barrio is not for sale.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the name of a representative from the Department of City Planning. His name is Calvin Brown, not Calvin Butts.