More than four years after the concept was first presented, and four months into the city’s public approval process, the Bloomberg administration’s plan to rezone 125th Street appears to be facing mounting opposition.
Numerous advocacy groups plan to critique the proposal at a City Planning Commission hearing scheduled for Jan. 30, and Manhattan’s Community Board 10 has been holding workshops that prepare residents to deliver testimony in preparation for the meeting. Such actions come as Borough President Scott Stringer last month gave a formal disapproval of the plan; a new advocacy group called VOTE People has formed to oppose the plan outright; Community Board 10 has issued a resolution with a long list of critiques after two packed hearings on the subject; and even the store-owner-and-landlord-backed 125th Street Business Improvement District is upset about a large component of the initiative.
Why all the fuss?
The rezoning seeks to transform the already-lively street into a bustling hub of business, arts, culture and shopping through larger and taller new construction along the thoroughfare. While community leaders say they welcome the concept of injecting a new vitality into 125th Street, worries of gentrification, housing affordability and displacement have fueled criticisms of numerous aspects of the city’s plan.
The proposed zoning change is hardly the largest or the most radical of the Bloomberg administration. In 2005, the city allowed for a transformation of Manhattan’s West Side, and it also opened the gates for thousands of new apartments in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg rezoning. But the 125th Street action is significant in both its scope and detail.
But the 125th Street plan is certain to be regarded as one of the most significant. The rezoning lies in the heart of one of the densest residential neighborhoods in the city, on what is perhaps the city’s most historic African-American thoroughfare, at a time when gentrification and displacement are major concerns throughout the city.
The plan is centered around the desire to establish 125th Street as a regional hub, a vision that planners seek to realize by allowing for developers to create buildings with substantially more density than is currently allowed, especially on the north end of the street in the center of the district.
In all, the plan would allow for approximately 2,300 new apartments and more than 600,000 square feet of new office and retail space—development that would presumably fill in the vacant lots and replace the one-story retail shops that line 125th.
In what is likely a nod to the street’s history and cultural significance, the plan seems to be one of the more meticulously crafted initiatives to come out of the Department of City Planning under Amanda Burden, the notoriously detail-focused chairwoman of the agency. Banks are forbidden from having large lobbies on the ground level so as to keep the street life vibrant; shop owners are prohibited from coating their storefronts with solid roll-down metal grates after they close; and theaters are permitted to build new marquee signs, an action not generally permitted citywide.
And while community groups have applauded certain aspects of the plan, such as an “arts bonus” that allows developers to build to the maximum density only if they include an artistic component, the city is seeing widespread criticism about other aspects.
Most controversial is Ms. Burden’s insistence on allowing for new residential development. While builders would likely take a development bonus and set 20 percent of the units aside as affordable, the prospect of up to 1,800 market-rate condos being built in the heart of Harlem (a number the environmental impact statement lists), a neighborhood with a median household income of less than $22,000 in 1999, is unsettling.
“We are against luxury residential developments,” said Franc Perry, the chairman of Community Board 10. Already, he added, “the concern is that people are being displaced and there’s no place for them to go.”
Even from the perspective of the district’s business-and-landlord group, the plan’s residential aspect is unwelcome.
“We’re for the rezoning of 125th Street with one exception,” said the chairman of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, Eugene Giscombe.
Adding housing would be like throwing “cold water” on the growing commercial corridor, Mr. Giscombe said, as many types of retail do not coexist well with higher-end apartments.
“We want to continue to grow the opportunities for retail and commercial development, and that’s not going to happen if residential is allowed to happen,” Mr. Giscombe added. “There’s plenty of space in Harlem for residential development without having to come on 125th Street.”
However, Ms. Burden—known for her insistence on staff visiting and spending time in communities that are being rezoned—believes apartments are necessary for the street to adopt the vibrant street life the city envisions.
“We want this street to be active, and the community does, too, day and night,” she told The Observer. “That comes with the 24/7 of combined residential and commercial development.”
Ms. Burden stressed that the goal has always been to make a thriving commercial and cultural corridor, and apartments are by no means the focus. Developers can also adopt other city-administered incentives that encourage low- and moderate-income housing.
In Harlem, though, worries about gentrification and displacement seem to be particularly acute, as there is a major disparity between the incomes of the broader community and residents in new condos. With a note of disgust, elected officials frequently cite the tendency of some realtors to brand the South Harlem area around West 116th Street as “SoHa”; Columbia University’s proposed expansion into a warehouse district in West Harlem lit a passionate opposition within the community before it was approved by the City Council in December.
When the 125th Street proposal goes before the City Council, a necessary step for approval that is due by May, eyes are resting on Councilwoman Inez Dickens, a real estate developer and daughter of longtime Harlem Assemblyman Lloyd Dickens, who represents the portion of 125th Street where the largest upzoning is proposed. The community boards on the east and west ends of the corridor recommended that the city approve the rezoning, and many of the other elected officials in the area are watching to follow Ms. Dickens’ lead.
Ms. Dickens declined to comment, though she has previously said she has concerns about the plan, including the residential component and the tall height limits, which would allow for buildings up to 290 feet tall.
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