Gotham Gazette

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Stated Meeting: Harlem Rezoning Approved

Harlem's low-story buildings and epic institutions will now get a so-called facelift -- at least in the view of city officials and some developers -- as the City Council approved a rezoning plan for the neighborhood's busiest boulevard last week.

The council on Wednesday approved a rezoning plan reaching from the Hudson to the East River that would include an unprecedented mandate for affordable housing and height limits on 125th Street, where large developers are eyeing towering commercial centers and condos.

The plan was met by extensive community opposition when first proposed years ago. The rezoning passed by council was a compromise between the area's council members, the administration and community groups. Even so, community support is split -- evident from the dozens of vocal critics at the City Hall meeting.

The council also approved several other pieces of legislation last week, including one that makes the mayor's Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability permanent.

Changes for Harlem

Though a raucous crowd in the council chamber's balcony was thrown out of the meeting, the council approved the "river to river" rezoning for Harlem by a vote of 47 to 2. Council members Tony Avella and Charles Barron voted against the rezoning.

Known as the center of black culture in New York City, possibly in the entire country, 125th Street in Harlem hosts historic and cultural landmarks, like the Apollo Theater. Because of its cultural and iconic role in the neighborhood and the city, the rezoning was highly sensitive throughout the neighborhood and sparked extreme community opposition.

On Wednesday, dozens of attendees were cleared from the council chamber after boos, hisses and cheers reverberated off the walls one too many times.

The agreement, which was negotiated by Harlem council members, particularly Inez Dickens, requires that 46 percent of all new apartments be affordable and sets height restrictions of 190 feet, or about 16 stories, on the north side of 125th Street and 160 feet, or about 13 stories on the south side. Before the rezoning, said Dickens, 125th Street had no such restrictions.

"When a law has no protection for the community, it must be changed," she said.

The rezoning also includes an arts bonus, which will ensure the cultural qualities of the neighborhood remain. For the first time, the city will require certain spaces be dedicated to arts groups, who will be reviewed by a local arts council whose members are selected by the local councilmember. The agreement also includes funding for capital improvements to Marcus Garvey Park.

Though the affordable housing and arts provisions are unprecedented for any city land use agreement, some members continued to oppose the rezoning, arguing it would fundamentally change the fabric of Harlem forever.

"Some people see this as a river to river success," said Barron. "Others see it as a river to river sell out."

Limiting Concrete Front Yards

Across the city, front yards are being cemented over to relieve the home's owners of a perpetual urban challenge: the search for a parking spot.

But while single property owners benefit, some residents and officials argue the neighborhood suffers as green space slowly dwindles away and street parking is lost. Currently, there are no zoning regulations that address the amount of pavement allowed on front yards.

Now, a zoning rule revision will prevent property owners from paving over their entire front yards and require they keep between 20 to 50 percent as green space. Homes that have already created their own driveways will not be affected. The council approved the change by a vote of 48 to 1 with Councilmember Simcha Felder dissenting.

Long Term Planning

The council unanimously approved a bill (Intro 395) permanently creating the mayor's Office of Long Term Sustainability and Planning, which was established as a part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030. Officials said making the office permanent would mean the city would always keep sustainability as a priority, regardless of who occupies City Hall.

Shared Sewers

At large-scale residential developments, common sewers are often placed deep below the property. But when problems occur, their location pose challenges.

Now, under legislation (Intro 657) introduced by Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo and unanimously approved by the council, common sewers must be outside of the property's boundaries, so they can be accessed for repair.  

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