Back in 2007, in order to win his vote for Columbia’s contentious Manhattanville rezoning, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer got the city to agree to rezone the blocks north of the new 17-acre campus as well, a stanch against over development. Today, the borough president gets to vote on the rezoning he requested for West Harlem, and he is touting it as a triumph of community planning.
“This rezoning reflects the input of thousands of stakeholders in West Harlem and five years of work toward crafting a community-based planning consensus that could be a model for the rest of our City,” Mr. Stringer said in an email. “It is a promise kept to the residents of West Harlem—and a proud moment for all who are involved.”
Like many parts of the city, the zoning has not been updated since 1961. The Department of City Planning has created, through a multi-year consultation with the community, a contextual zoning package that will largely maintain the same density of development in the neighborhood while imposing new height limits and street wall requirements to ensure that sliver buildings and other uncharacteristic buildings cannot be built.
The rezoning covers 90 blocks stretching from 126th Street up to 155th Street, running west from Edgecombe, Bradhurt, Amsterdam and St. Nicholas avenues to the river. Excluded from this area is the the campuses of City College and Columbia’s Manhattanville project, which is south of 133rd Street.
West of Broadway, the buildings are the biggest, rising to 105 feet on the side streets and 120 feet on the avenues, but buildings have a required setback between 60 and 85 feet. They must now be built up to the sidewalk, as is the case in most of Manhattan, thus presenting developers from stepping back to build taller towers. East of Broadway, the same street wall requirements exist, though the buildings are lower, ranging from height limits of 70 to 80 feet, with setbacks between 40 and 60 feet. This is meant to reflect the rowhouse and walk-up scale of the area.
“This historic undertaking will protect the distinctive residential character of this neighborhood for decades to come,” Mr. Stringer said.
Special districts have been carved out for 145th Street, the area’s main commercial thoroughfare, and a pocket of manufacturing around 126th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Along 145th Street, a few select sites have been upzoned, to provide for new development, which will be part of the city’s inclusionary housing program, which means that in exchange for a bonus to build bigger, developers must make 20 percent of their units affordable. These sites could rise as high as 170 feet with the inclusion of the affordable housing.
The 126th Street area had been traditionally used for manufacturing, but the plan calls for a new mixed use district that would allow housing, commercial and light manufacturing uses to coexist. This is not unlike the mix of uses just across the street in Columbia’s new campus.
“We feel very comfortable that this plan will protect the neighborhood from some of the development we’ve seen elsewhere in the city,” Reverend Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, chair of the local community board, told The Observer. She pointed to two projects in particular, Aerial East and Aerial West, hulking towers developed around 100th Street by Extell Development as the kind of egregious development the community wanted to avoid.
The board spent three years developing a model for the rezoning with the help of the Department of City Planning and the borough president. “Scott and City Planning have done an extraordinary job working with the community to craft this plan,” Ms. Morgan-Thomas said.
“It’s always a great place to be to know you’ve done something for the community, something that will truly protect it,” she added. “When we’re all gone, the zoning will still be in place, along with the buildings as they’ve always been.”