EAST HARLEM — The City Planning Commission has approved plans to build three schools and a 68-story residential tower on a single block of East 96th Street, despite opposition from some locals overs the size of the project.
Neighbors say the height of the tower at 321 E. 96th St., between First and Second avenues, would set a "dangerous precedent" for future development, but members of the Commission disagreed with that contention last week before voting to green light the plan.
"In voting 'yes,' I do not give that the commission is setting a precedent, saying that throughout East Harlem buildings of this height are appropriate," said Commission Chairwoman Marisa Lago on Wednesday. "We are making a determination only about this particular site. This site is uniquely appropriate for this program."
The $950 million redevelopment plan calls for a new building to house the School of Cooperative Technical Education, as well as another to be shared by the Heritage School and Park East High School.
The proposal also includes retail space, an upgrade of the Marx Brothers Playground and a mixed-income residential high-rise with more than 1,000 units, 30 percent of which would be permanently affordable.
Locals are concerned about the height of the residential tower, saying that it would stick out like a sore thumb, as no other building in the area is that tall.
"The building is wildly out of context," Lo van der Valk, president of the group Carnegie Hill Neighbors, told DNAinfo New York after the vote "No building anywhere near exceeds the 450-foot range. The proposed tower is not only tall, it is huge, with over 1,100 units in a single building. It is a Midtown-scale building plunked onto 96th Street."
He noted that the tallest structures on the Upper East Side and in East Harlem are the two Mt. Sinai buildings between 99th and 102nd Streets that are in the low- to mid-500-foot range.
Furthermore, residents argue that the city is taking away park land to build the project.
Marx Brothers Playground has been restricted to educational purposes during school hours since 1947 as a Jointly Operated Playground between the Department of Education and the Department of Parks and Recreation. It has never been a public park, which would prohibit development, according to the Commission.
But in 2004, when the MTA wanted to use part of the playground to hold Second Avenue Subway equipment, language used in the legislation to make that happen said the land would be used for "park purposes" once the subway line was completed.
Now, the city is planning to get new legislation to clarify the language that it is not a public park and that the part the MTA used for storage be upgraded along with the rest of the playground.
"This is a blatant example of city overreach," van der Valk added. "As far as we know, this would be the first case of the city using the air rights from a playground that is zoned as a park, prohibiting development."
Despite some discomfort, the Planning Commission moved ahead with it approval.
"There are times when the review process yields far better results for the community and the city, but this is not one of them," said Planning Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron, before voting in favor of it at Wednesday's hearing. "At 63 stories, it's nearly double the height of the next tallest building between The Bronx and Midtown, and the building is simply not in context for the neighborhood.
"I don’t believe aggregating three expanded schools on a single block is the current best practice for school siting," Cohen Effron added, noting that she also didn't approve of making the Marx Brothers Playground open only to students for the majority of the day. "I only wish there was a better plan to achieve these goals... but it should not set a precedent."
The next and final step is getting approval by the City Council.