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To Influence Rezoning, East Harlem Stakeholders Preempt City Plan With Own

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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 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 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.”

by Maggie Calmes, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Eyeing 100 Schools, Will Success Academy Expand to Staten Island?

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Eva Moskowitz & students at a charter school rally (photo: @MoskowitzEva)

With 34 schools currently serving around 11,000 students, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy is, and will likely continue to be, the largest charter school network in New York City. Success currently operates in four boroughs and Moskowitz has an ambitious target of reaching 100 schools within the next decade, which prompts the question: Why are there no Success Academy schools on Staten Island?

Success Academy has not sought authorization to run a school on Staten Island. The borough only has three charter schools run by any provider, of the nearly 200 in the city. A fourth charter school is in the process of being set up. Some say that the borough’s current crop of district, charter, and private schools are relatively strong, leaving little demand for Success to move in. But, it may just be a matter of time, especially as the network continues to post extraordinary test scores and seeks to expand its reach further.

“We have a few charter schools that are serving our community’s needs, and if they no longer serve that need then I wouldn’t be opposed to Success Academy coming to Staten Island,” said Sam Pirozzolo, vice-president of the New York City Parents Union, a volunteer organization that has been a vocal supporter of the charter school movement.

Pirozzolo, who lives on Staten Island and was president of the borough’s community education council (largely parent advisory groups organized through a process run by the city Department of Education), said parents should be able to choose between district and charter schools, and that both have faults.

Success Academy hasn’t ruled out Staten Island in its expansion plan, said Ann Powell, a spokesperson for the network. “It’s certainly possible in the future,” she said pointing out that the network only expanded to Queens two years ago. “As we move forward,” she said, “we hope to be able to serve families and students in Staten Island.”

“Eva Moskowitz has a very good reputation with her charter schools,” Pirozzolo told Gotham Gazette, exemplifying the view of many who see Success schools as strong alternatives to traditional district schools.

Moskowitz, a former City Council member, founded the Success Academy network in 2006 after a failed run for Manhattan Borough President. She has staunchly defended the network’s methods, which elicit much debate. Critics say its strict disciplinary practices and overemphasis on testing are detrimental to students, while supporters cite high performance on standardized tests and stronger school culture than neighboring district schools.

Adding fuel to the fire have been controversies at individual schools. The New York Times on Friday posted a video from a Success Academy school that shows a teacher harshly reprimanding and shaming a first-grader for stumbling over a math problem. In October last year, the Times also exposed one Success principal’s “Got to Go” list of underperforming students, whose parents claimed they were being pushed out of the school. There have been separate allegations that students with disabilities are systematically mistreated. Two federal lawsuits have been filed recently against the network, with several more over the years. Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who heads the Council’s education committee (that Moskowitz once ran), have joined one of the newer complaints.

Moskowitz and Success have also battled with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been an outspoken critic of Moskowitz, over school co-locations, and are currently tangling over pre-kindergarten contracts.

But there is no apparent evidence that these controversies and disputes have been mitigating factors for interest in Success schools among parents, especially in areas of the city with historically troubled schools, nor for interest in a Success school on Staten Island. There are even students who commute from the island to Success schools in other boroughs.

“We support any school – public, charter, or private – that gives Staten Island students a greater chance of success,” said Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, in an email. “With that in mind, we want Staten Island parents to have a variety of local school choices.”

Oddo said the “greatest outcry” from parents and advocates was for schools that better serve children with learning disabilities. He cited the example of a private school in Teaneck, New Jersey which specifically helps students who have difficulties with reading. A number of Staten Island students were enrolled there, he said, since their neighborhoods lacked adequate facilities and their tuition was paid by the Department of Education.

“If Eva Moskowitz, or anyone else, is interested in talking with us about how they can help us meet the needs of these students, we would certainly welcome that conversation,” Oddo said.

Mike Reilly, president of Community Education Council 31, which represents the entire borough, believes Success hasn’t made the move to Staten Island because existing public schools are doing well. CECs advise the Department of Education on district needs and communicate with local residents.

“We’ve noticed that many charter schools open in areas where there’s a concern over performance of district schools,” Reilly said. “The need for charter schools doesn’t seem to be there in Staten Island. I’ve never heard anyone ask about opening a Success Charter school.”

City Council Minority Leader Steven Matteo, a Republican representing the mid-Island district, echoed this opinion. “The public and private schools in my district are well-regarded and I think parents are very happy with the choices they have,” Matteo said in a statement. “I am not sure there is a need, or necessarily a market for Success Academy here."

Most Success Academy schools are concentrated in areas of the city with the district schools that struggle the most - areas of the south Bronx, central Brooklyn, and northern Manhattan. Many parents see Success as desperately-needed alternatives to district schools with low standardized test scores and a lack of order. Some appear to be turned off by reports of Success suspension rates far higher than district schools’ and the extreme focus on performing well on test scores.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, believes that there is likely to be demand for Success charters on Staten Island even if it’s not overtly apparent. He speculated that transportation and infrastructure concerns might be holding back such a prospect.

“Networks generally try to not have their schools geographically dispersed. Growth might better happen through new independent schools or by someone starting a network, who lives on the island,” he said. He also noted that Success leaders have been adamant in the past about co-locating with existing schools and that Staten Island affords few schools with that capability.

Still, Merriman said, “I think there’s been demand for a Success school in most corners of the city.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Carmen Russo contributed reporting to this story.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, February 15

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This President's Day week will be somewhat quiet, with both the City Council and state Legislature on break, as they usually are to coincide wit schools being closed. The weekend was a busy one in Albany, though, where the Legislature's Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus held its annual caucus weekend of conferences and celebrations. Mayor Bill de Blasio and many other elected officials took part, in addition to caucus members.

De Blasio, city, and state officials were also dealing with the extreme cold temperatures of the weekend, of course. And, on Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in Harlem, where he "announced the launch of a Fair Housing Enforcement Program – a groundbreaking initiative to uncover discrimination in rental and home sale transactions. Additionally, the Governor has directed the Division of Human Rights and the Department of State to propose new regulations to strengthen the state's housing enforcement efforts on behalf of all New Yorkers," according to a press release from his office.

This week we're watching for continued discussion of how the governor's budget may affect city policy and budgeting - the governor's 30-day budget amendments have kept proposed cuts to funding for New York City in CUNY and Medicaid costs - which de Blasio says he will continue to work to see that Cuomo was sincere when he said these proposals are about finding efficiencies and won't actually cost the city anything.

De Blasio holds a town hall Tuesday night in Brooklyn - details below - and a public conversation on inequality with economist Paul Krugman on Thursday evening at the CUNY Graduate Center. De Blasio has no events on his public schedule for Monday. We're watching to see when the mayor may reschedule a press conference on his Brooklyn-Queens streetcar proposal that was cancelled when a crane collapsed recently, killing one person.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito continues to discuss her agenda after last week's State of the City address with at least a couple of public interviews, including one Thursday afternoon - details below.

Even with the two main legislatuve bodies on a break, there are several events to be aware of this week - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Schedule is clear for Monday, Presidents Day, as of now.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, Mayor de Blasio will host a press conference on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, his streetcar plan.

On Tuesday at noon, NYPD Inspector Generel Philip Eure will speak at Columbia Law School's Center for Public Integrity. He'll discuss "What led to the creation of the OIG-NYPD." "The Inspector General's role in addressing systemic issues at the NYPD." "OIG-NYPD's findings on police use of force, body-worn cameras, and the policy on chokeholds."

On Tuesday in New York City, Gov. Cuomo is set to co-host a lunchtime fundraiser for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Milano School and Center for New York City Affairs at The New School will host a discussion called “The New Wild West: Money and the 2016 US Presidential Election” at Arnhold Hall. Speakers will include moderator Jeff Smith, a professor at the New School; Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer; Jack Oliver, Jeb Bush’s campaign finance chair; Democratic National Committee fundraiser Zach Allen; Adam Smith of Every Voice; and others.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Member Gentile, State Senator Marty Golden, Assembly Member Pamela Harris, and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce join Mayor Bill de Blasio at Fort Hamilton High School for a town hall, where he is set to “addresses economic development and quality-of-life issues for businesses and residents.”

At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks at the Marine Park Civic Association Monthly Meeting in Brooklyn.

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Jonathan F.P Rose (President of Jonathan Rose Companies) and Mitchell Silver (FAICP and New York City Parks Commissioner) will speak on Urban Landscape and Public Health, hosted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, an initiative of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and NYC Votes, will hold a public meeting to encourage the improvement of voter participation and progress with Student Voter Registration Day efforts.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, New York City Economic Development Corporation President Maria Torres-Springer will speak at breakfast presented by Civic Hall and NY Tech Meetup that the former is hosting.

On Thursday at 11:30 a.m., "Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. will deliver his annual "State of the Borough" address, his seventh since taking office in 2009. During the speech, Borough President Diaz will discuss the successes of the previous year while also offering new proposals on a variety of topics, such as education, development, tourism and more." The event will take place at Cardinal Hayes High School.

At 3 p.m. Thursday at CUNY Journalism School, Errol Louis of NY1 and CUNY J-School will host a Q&A with New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, where she will discuss “the City Council's outreach to the community and ethnic media, her State of the City address, the Council’s legislative agenda, including the Criminal Justice Reform Act, numerous challenges immigrants are facing in the city, affordable housing, issues confronting small businesses and workers rights.”

At 5 p.m. Thursday in the Bronx, candidates competing for the vacant City Council District 17 seat in the Feb. 23 special election will participate in a forum. The Community Access Voter Awareness Forum will be moderated by the Bronx Chronicle’s Michael Benjamin and DNAinfo’s Eddie Small.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and economist Paul Krugman will participate in a discussion on the mayor’s efforts to combat social and economic inequality, as well as the larger picture on those issues. The event will be hosted by the CUNY Graduate Center, and will be moderated by Janet Gornick, professor of political science and sociology and director of the Luxembourg Income Study at the Graduate Center.

Friday and the weekend
On Friday in Albany, from 4-8 p.m., the New York State Assembly will hold a hearing to discuss cooperatively owned housing in New York City.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Leanna Carroll and Ben Max

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