Speaker Mark-Viverito at an East Harlem planning session (photo: William Alatriste)
A coalition of East Harlem residents, community leaders, and advocacy organizations led by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is set to release an exhaustive set of more than 200 recommendations aimed at informing the de Blasio administration’s plan for rezoning and improving the upper-Manhattan neighborhood.
The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan is the product of participation by over 1,300 East Harlem residents in seven community visioning workshops, hundreds of community surveys, and eight meetings of Community Board 11 over the course of 10 months. The planning process began last year, after de Blasio highlighted zoning and affordable housing in his State of the City address and named East Harlem as one of the first group of neighborhoods the city plans to upzone for higher density, more affordable housing, and neighborhood improvements.
The plan, due out at the end of this week, is meant to preempt and influence the proposals included in de Blasio’s East Harlem neighborhood plan, which will go through a land use review process. Stakeholders in East Harlem have sought to get out ahead of a process that has vexed community members in other parts of the city the administration is targeting, most notably Brooklyn’s East New York, which is the first neighborhood plan moving forward.
Mark-Viverito, whose district includes all of East Harlem, said at a January 27 community planning forum, “I represent the community, so my decision is that if there’s an interest in rezoning my neighborhood, my interest is to get my community to provide input, so I decided to be proactive instead of reactive.”
Along with project partner and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Mark-Viverito has thrown her significant political clout behind the project, which received considerable funding through the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Neighborhoods First Fund for Community Based Planning.
Community Voices Heard (CVH), a grassroots, member-led group, also organized residents and led planning sessions. The extensive, well-funded, carefully facilitated (Hester Street Collaborative and WXY Studio oversaw gathering and organizing community input), and Council Speaker-supported process may position the plan for influence unlike in other community planning efforts.
“It’s something that we have not seen in any other neighborhood in New York,” Mark-Viverito said at the January 27 community forum, at which a draft of the plan was unveiled for final feedback. It includes recommendations on everything from job training for NYCHA residents to requirements for more school seats when land is developed for new housing to marketing East Harlem as a cultural destination.
East Harlem is one of the first seven neighborhoods on deck for rezoning under the mayor’s plan, which re-envisions neighborhoods to increase housing, build schools, add retail space and jobs, and more. Others include East New York, West Flushing, the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, Long Island City, and Inwood.
These neighborhood specific rezonings, along with the two citywide zoning changes the administration has been pushing through the process (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA)) have led some to foresee more affordable housing and amenities in long-struggling communities while others fear gentrification and a lack of benefits for long-time community residents.
While the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan will include objectives and recommendations for deeper affordability in new housing developments than mandated by the inclusionary housing requirements, it will also detail policy, program, and capital solutions to high rates of unemployment, poverty, substance abuse, violent crime, chronic illness, and other problems in the East Harlem community.
"This is a document that we actually want to govern how East Harlem is developed and evolves over time, both with our without MIH, with or without 421-a,” Sondra Youdelman, Executive Director of CVH, told Gotham Gazette, referring to the 421-a affordable housing tax abatement program that recently expired at the state level. “The community wants more affordable housing, deep affordability, and good jobs...as well as a host of other things,” Youdelman added. “Now it's up to the city to figure out which policies and tools need to be coupled together to make this happen."
After its release, the plan will be sent to the Department of City Planning and other city agencies, like the parks and education departments. “We’re kind of doing it upside-down. Usually an application is presented and we respond to it, right?” Mark-Viverito said to the audience on January 27, referring to the typical land use review process (ULURP). “The application hasn’t even been submitted. We have a plan, we’re giving it to the city and we’re forcing the city to consider and take into account those needs in the application process.”
When the de Blasio administration does have a rezoning plan ready for public review, it will begin the typical land use process, with some community outreach, an environmental impact review, and then advisory votes by the local community board and borough president, before heading to the City Planning Commission and then the City Council. Tweaks can be made at each of the two final spots.
Implementation for the East Harlem rezoning plan is slated for sometime after the summer of 2017. A committee of people from the planning process will continue to meet with city officials throughout the review process to ensure adherence to the community’s vision. Mark-Viverito will continue to be perhaps the most pivotal figure in the process as city officials often defer to the local City Council member on rezoning and other land use processes.
While it is unclear how much of the community-driven East Harlem Neighborhood Plan will be adopted by the de Blasio administration and City Planning, other to-be-rezoned neighborhoods may soon follow East Harlem’s example. City Council Member Mark Levine also attended the January 27 East Harlem public forum. When asked if he was considering a similar process for neighborhoods in and around the Upper West Side, Levine remarked that Broadway north of 155th St., while not up for immediate rezoning, “could at some point become a real-life prospect.”
“I’m here to learn from this incredible process,” Levine told the Gotham Gazette. “I think this can serve as a model of how to engage the community, and there’s a chance that there could be these types of rezonings in my district at some point and I want to listen and learn as much as I can so we’re ahead of the game.”
Council Member Carlos Menchaca of District 38 - parts of southern Brooklyn - also expressed excitement over the planning process after the forum on January 27. “People don’t just show up to show up. They show up because they know that there’s value in their participation and I see that today,” Menchaca said. “I want this in Sunset Park. I want this in Red Hook. I want this in my district.”
Noting the nine-month timeline of the East Harlem planning process, Menchaca indicated he may try to engage his community soon.
Council Member Brad Lander drew several comparisons between the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan process and the Bridging Gowanus Community Planning Framework, which he has helped shepherd in his Brooklyn district, and lauded both projects as meaningful civic engagement. “Everyone gets the challenges that come with gentrification and development,” Lander said. “But if you engage people in real thoughtful, engaged, grownup conversations about them...you get a real, smart, thoughtful conversation, and you’re much better able to make hard choices.” Lander acknowledges, though, “sometimes there’s still hard choices down the road.”
Mark-Viverito said on January 27 that she is “very proud of this effort” and “hoping it can serve as a model for other neighborhoods.”
“It would be great,” she said, “if the administration established some sort of process to create neighborhood plans in every area that would be rezoned.”
Not longer after, on February 11, Mark-Viverito delivered her 2016 State of the City speech and made a formal call for just that. She did not specifically discuss the East Harlem rezoning, but she did unveil a proposal to “enhance community input in neighborhood development.”
Calling for more voices in the decision-making process, Mark-Viverito said that “the Council proposes that the city develop a Neighborhood Commitment Plan to accompany rezoning proposals, describing and tracking commitments for housing, schools, infrastructure, and other city services.”
“New York needs to be a city for everyone, with policymaking and governance that is open to everyone,” she said during her speech, given in the Bronx section of her district. Communities must be able to “make informed land use decisions,” she said, especially as “neighborhoods across New York City are in the midst of rezoning discussions.”