Harlem residents continued to express apprehension about a proposal to rezone West Harlem during a city zoning hearing Wednesday, criticizing threats to the neighborhood’s architectural landscape and plans for affordable housing.
The proposal, which is roughly five years in the making and is the first major effort to rezone West Harlem since 1961, will restrict building heights in a 90-block area from 126th Street to 155th Street and between Riverside Drive and Edgecombe Avenue. It will also add commercial space and affordable housing on 145th Street, which city planning officials say could bring the community together through shopping and public recreation.
The City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet next week for a final vote on the proposal by the Department of City Planning.
Melissa Cerezo, the planning department’s West Harlem project manager, said that the rezoning plan would preserve the historic character of Harlem, which consists mostly of residential properties six stories or lower. Under the new plan, roughly 95 percent of the neighborhood would be preserved in its current state, Cerezo said.
“It will really ensure that new developments are sensitive to the fabric of this neighborhood,” Cerezo said.
Although they agreed with much of the plan, several Community Board 9 members said at the hearing that the rezoning of 145th Street could actually disrupt the architectural landscape that the planning department is working to protect by allowing for the creation of taller buildings on the street. Under the rezoning proposal, one block of 145th Street would be designated an R8A zone, which would allow buildings on that block to reach up to 12 stories.
The planning department website says that the height of R8A buildings is often limited to ensure compatibility with surrounding buildings, a tool known as a “contextual zoning district.” However, some CB9 members at the hearing were still worried. Among them was Walter South, who urged the planning department not to change the zone’s current status, which limits building to about six stories.
“Why does a small group of politically connected people in this community have more rights than the community board, which has voted twice against this proposal?” South asked the subcommittee.
Simon Thoresen, another CB9 member, also opposed the plan, saying it would bring greater congestion and pollution to the neighborhood.
Hearing attendees also raised the issue of West Harlem’s architectural cohesion. City Council member Robert Jackson, who represents West Harlem, asked planning department officials a list of questions involving the futures of specific buildings, such as the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Harlem School of the Arts. Adam Wolff, deputy director of the planning department’s Manhattan office, said that the buildings could not keep their current zoning regulations for fear that buildings on adjacent lots would drastically exceed them in height, resulting in possible safety hazards.
Affordable housing was also a point of debate, especially because “inclusionary housing” incentives offered by the planning department would allow buildings to reach up to 17 stories if they include permanent affordable housing units. Several speakers said that the plan does not take the lives of individual residents into account.
“We oppose the current bill not because of what is has, but more because of what it lacks,” said Charles A. Curtis, the pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church. “It does not deal with flesh and blood, the hearts and minds of the people. Realize that Harlem has changed. Rents are not going down—rents are going up.”