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East Harlem Rezoning is 'Ethnic Cleansing,' Locals Say During Chaotic Vote

 Protesters hissed and booed throughout the meeting, then stormed the stage to protest the vote. 
Protesters hissed and booed throughout the meeting, then stormed the stage to protest the vote. 
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EAST HARLEM — Protesters stormed the stage at a chaotic community board meeting Tuesday night, equating a controversial city plan to rezone the neighborhood to "ethnic cleansing" and even tussling with attendees after the board voted not to reject the proposal outright. 

Hundreds of residents chanted, hissed, booed and even got into physical altercations throughout the more than four-hour meeting, urging Community Board 11 to unequivocally vote "no" and claiming the rezoning would displace many working-class residents in the historic Hispanic and black enclave.

The vote — in which board members voted not to support the plans unless the city meets certain demands — capped off months of resistance by many locals against the proposal as it moves through the multi-step city review process.   

However, residents who wanted a firm “no” vote took the board's conditional “no” — which includes stipulations like providing more "deeply affordable" housing — as a "yes."

“How many people oppose the racist, scam proposal coming out of the city right now?” Roger Hernandez, an organizer from El Barrio Unite, asked the audience to cheers.

He called the plan “a Trojan horse” that would "basically come out at night to do us in."

In April, the city triggered the formal review process to rezone a 96-block swath of the neighborhood between East 104th and 132nd streets from Park to Second avenues, and between East 126th and 132nd streets from Madison to Fifth avenues.

The process, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), requires the community board, borough president, City Planning Commission, City Council and ultimately the mayor to review the proposal. 

The rezoning would allow for higher density in residential and commercial areas, with new buildings permitted to rise as tall as 35 stories, the Department of City Planning said.

The city claims 3,500 units of housing could be created under the plan, with a “significant proportion” being “permanently affordable.”

An impact statement by the city also estimates that 27 residents and 14 businesses, including an estimated 209 jobs, could be displaced by the plan. 

“I don’t care what they build, it’s not for us,” said one woman during the meeting's public comment portion. “Right now, this plan is a plan for ethnic cleansing."

“You better be ready to lay your bodies out on the land,” she added.

Marina Ortiz, of the group East Harlem Preservation, claimed the plan would “destroy the very fabric of what has historically been an affordable tenement community serving immigrants and low-income families of color.”

“Politicians be forewarned: if you proceed, we will cash out everyone responsible at the ballot box in November. If we go, you go,” she added in a nod to the elected officials set to review the plan.

The conditions the board requested be met in their vote included leaving Eugene McCabe playground and the Henry J. Carter Specialty Hospital out of the rezoning plan, making buildings constructed on public land “100 percent affordable, and providing city and state subsidies for housing preservation.

The board also called for making any new buildings constructed contextual with surrounding properties, hiring majority local union workers for construction projects, creating pathways to homeownership for low-income families, adding tax incentives for commercial properties to grow businesses, and beefing up anti-displacement measures through city inspections of derelict landlords.

“[City Planning] did not embrace all of our goals,” acknowledged board member LaShawn Henry at the meeting. “It does not conform to our core values.”

That the board agreed to the proposal assuming it met members' stipulations enraged those who were stridently against it.

“I’m not asking the board to vote ‘no,’ I’m demanding the board vote ‘no’,” said one resident. “It is a criminal act against our people.”

As the board began to vote toward the end of the meeting, locals rushed board members, chanting and waving signs, prompting tense exchanges with some board members and a brief melee among attendees.   

“You can yell, you can shout, you can call us a sellout all you want,” Community Board 11 Chairwoman Diane Collier shouted at the protesters.

The demonstration also prompted the board to vote by paper rather than its traditional public roll call, which roiled some members, despite their votes being made public. 

CB11's Marie Winfield called into question the legitimacy of the vote, saying she refused to vote on a piece of paper while insisting members speak their decision. 

“I wanted to vote in the public meeting,” she said. “The vote should be invalidated.”

A spokesman for the City Planning Commission described the proposal as being "built on extensive community engagement before the city’s formal proposal was produced,” noting that the agency would "carefully weigh" the community board's recommendations.  

“It has been the subject of broad outreach and discussion, with stakeholders throughout East Harlem," spokesman Joe Marvilli added. "The city will continue to work with community leaders and elected officials on the priorities that have been outlined.”