Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Evolution of East Harlem

The seeds of big box development are painstakingly being sown in East Harlem, to the chagrin of some residents present at Community Board 11’s Land Use Committee meeting last Monday night in the basement cafeteria of North General Hospital.

While the massive development promises to bring jobs and tenants to a blighted section of East Harlem, residents fear that the project could result in less green space, squeezed out local retail, less affordable housing, and a parking nightmare.

Almost two years after the city first issued a request for development proposals, the East 125th Street Development plan is slouching forward. Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber, District Eight Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Manhattan Community Board 11’s East 125th Street Taskforce are ironing out an agreement to select one out of three developers being considered for the mixed-use 1.7 million square foot project.

“Developer E, the presumed favorite in the ongoing blind selection process, is real estate mogul Joseph Sitt’s Thor Equities, which is also redeveloping Coney Island,” said Robert Rodriguez, Manhattan Community Board 11 Chair. Vornado Realty Trust and General Growth Properties are the other two developers in the bidding to build the combination of retail, office, residential, and cultural space – and even a 180-room hotel.

“Our goals and priorities focus on affordable housing, jobs, a cultural center, public space, and small businesses,” said Rodriguez, who sought to make the plan’s $100 million in expected community benefits “accountable to the people of East Harlem.”

The proposed six-acre East Harlem site contains three parcels located between Second and Third Avenues and East 125th and East 127th Streets. The Economic Development Corporation, the city’s development wing, has spearheaded the stalled East 125th Street plan as an integral part of the broader Harlem renaissance and the river-to-river rezoning effort.

The East 125th Street development, which may take over a decade to materialize, includes up to 300,000 square feet of anchor retail space for national tenants such as JC Penny, BJ’s, Lowe’s, and Regal Cinema. The plan is also slated to have up to 140,000 square feet for specialty retail such as restaurants and nightclubs.

Meanwhile, at the 485,000 square foot East River Plaza project already under construction at East 116th Street, Target, Best Buy, and Marshalls are still expected, but Costco may replace Home Depot, which is no longer interested. Community Board Chair Rodriguez said he aimed not to see a repeat of the scenario in which East River Plaza construction jobs were promised but never delivered for neighborhood residents.
In addition to concerns over gentrification, community members also expressed doubts whether the proposal was competitive enough to take advantage of Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone funds.

“In this credit market, I doubt that these national tenants could work out financing for the East 125th Street project,” said Garry Johnson, president of Johnson Design Consulting Inc., an East Harlem-based company. “Look at the East River Plaza’s [Home Depot]. That will happen to these guys later too,” said Johnson. Johnson also doubted whether the 50,000 square feet of local retail would be fairly accommodated in the East 125th Street redevelopment.

“The city has promised not to use eminent domain to remove tenants, but Fancy Cleaners, Midas, and a gas station at 126th Street and Third Avenue are concerned that they might not receive market value for their properties,” said Rodriguez.

The East 125th Street plan also includes around 900 units of mixed-income housing, about half of which is slated to be owner-occupied. There would likely be one residential tower and one mixed-use tower, including over 150,000 square feet of office space. Also planned are 300,000 square feet of cultural and media space, which would include 30,000 square feet for non-profit performance space, where groups such as PR Dreams and the Caribbean Cultural Center would pay below market rent, according to the current plan.

“We don’t have to develop everything. We can leave some areas to nature,” said Francis, an East Harlem resident who doubted that the plan’s minimum requirement for open space would ultimately be fulfilled. Additionally, the plan aims to include over 600 new parking spots, and some residents worried that their neighborhood would turn into a giant parking lot.

“We cannot get [Councilmember Mark-Viverito] to back us on major land use stand up to the city and fight for this neighborhood. She always folds. Now we’re under the gun again due to her inadequacies,” said Johnson. He added, “Melissa, we got you in, and we can get you out.” The councilmember did not return phone calls for comment.

“There should be a citizen review process and [Community Benefits Agreement] equal to the ones for Columbia University’s expansion plan in Manhattanville and for Hunts Point in the Bronx,” said Lee Shan, an East Harlem resident and city employee. Board chair Rodriguez countered that a more comparable review process in terms of community feedback occurred with the 125th Street Corridor Rezoning, which has already been approved by the New York City Planning Commission.

“In this process, we should be responsive and reactive but also progressive in expressing the vision for what we want,” said Matthew Washington, co-chair of the Community Board 11 Land Use Committee and Deputy Director of Friends of Hudson River Park. “The city has not done a good job in addressing these concerns, and the people who represent us are not listening. We’re shooting full force for the community and for our families,” added Washington.

“We need to take a more active role in selecting the developer and creating a decent vision before October 7th, when the City Council votes to approve the plan,” said Rodriguez, on the East 125th Street Development’s impending Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Monday night’s meeting also addressed the snail’s pace of other construction projects in the area, as well as the planned pedestrian and bike connector from East Harlem to Randall’s Island.

“We must ensure that future developments adhere to what we want before we begin them, since our children will have to live with the results. Developers want your land, labor, and the tax benefits,” said Johnson, who urged that the incipient East Harlem Local Development Corporation take heed of these concerns.

The American Ballroom Theater’s Dancing Classrooms and Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies and are two non-profit organizations listed as possible tenants for the East 125th Street development’s 30,000 square feet of cultural space.

“We would be happy to serve the East Harlem community,” said Pierre Dulaine, founder and executive director of Dancing Classrooms. “But we were not even aware that this development is still going forward.”

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