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Mayor Ignoring Residents in East Harlem Rezoning Plan, Boro Prez Says

By Gustavo Solis | August 24, 2017 2:09pm
 Residents and elected officials from East Harlem told the City Planning Commission that they reject the city's rezoning plan during a public hearing on August 23, 2017.
East Harlem Rezoning
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EAST HARLEM — The mayor is ignoring El Barrio residents' input on rezoning the neighborhood, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer charged Wednesday afternoon.

“Despite our clear recommendations, the administration is not taking the community’s plan seriously,” said Brewer during a public hearing on East Harlem's proposed rezoning.

After a two-year process in which residents and local business owners came up with recommendations of what they'd like to see in the rezoning, city officials came up with their own plan that doesn't include those recommendations, Brewer told the City Planning Commission.

Nearly 100 speakers signed up to talk during a five-hour meeting at 1 Centre St. Wednesday. To maintain some semblance of balance, commissioners took turns listening to five people in favor of the plan and five people against the plan.

The East Harlem Neighborhood plan, the one people worked on for two years, recommended rezoning a wide part of the neighborhood and allowing for slightly taller buildings, but the city’s plan concentrates the rezoning to key parts of the neighborhood and allows for building Midtown-sized buildings along Park and Third avenues.

According to the U.S. Census, median household income in East Harlem is $30,972 but the lowest level of affordability under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is an average of $31,000 for a family of three.

Most people who spoke in favor of the plan were commissioners and deputy commissioners from city agencies like the Administration for Children's Services, the Small Business Services, Housing Preservation and Development and the Human Resources Administration that work closely with the mayor’s office.

In expressing their support of the plan, they pointed out that rents in East Harlem have risen faster than the city average over the last decade and this rezoning plan is their best bet to curb that trend.

“New market-rate development is occurring in East Harlem without any requirements for affordable housing while more than half of all households are rent burdened,” said HPD Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer. “The rezoning proposal before you today is crucial in addressing the high demand of housing while requiring permanently affordable apartments in all new developments.”

Unless the city can increase the neighborhood’s overall housing supply, rents will continue to rise, echoed Jessica Kats, associate commissioner at HPD.

Those who opposed the plan, many of whom worked on the neighborhood plan, say the city's plan has a high level of density and low level of affordability.

El Barrio residents are also weary of outside interest in the neighborhood because they’ve historically been ignored or treated as a dumping ground. The neighborhood has two waste treatment facilities, the highest concentration of public housing developments in Manhattan, a crumbling riverfront esplanade, and an oversaturation of methadone clinics around 125th Street and Lexington Avenue.

But now that property values are increasing and people are taking interest in the neighborhood, longtime residents feel threatened.

“Nobody’s interested in East Harlem until recently,” said Leon Bligen, a long-time neighborhood resident and volunteer with advocacy group, Community Voices Heard. “Now all the big money is interested in East Harlem and they are trying to displace the residents. I truly understand now what the Native Americans must have felt like when those ships from Europe landed here and said they discovered the place.”

The current plan is not set in stone.

Public comments are currently being reviewed by the City Planning Commission, which can alter the plan. The plan will then head to the City Council in the fall. City Council sends recommendations to the mayor.

A final decision on the plan is expected to be made by the end of the calendar year.