Must They Do So Alone?
Op-ed by Lynn Ellsworth
Summer is here. While the Indivisible activists make calls against Trump, while urbanists lament that East Midtown seems doomed to become Dubai, and while the elite of NYC plan summer retreats to the beach, another a tragedy has been unfolding uptown among people in East Harlem: they are in a battle for their neighborhood.
Here is the story: Mayor de Blasio and his Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, have proposed a huge up-zoning for East Harlem, 96 blocks of it, from Fifth to Second Avenue, from 104th to 132nd Streets. It is one of several such huge up-zonings around the City. The goal is to give developers as much public air, sky, and light as possible, to rub out old human-scale East Harlem in the doing. A good part of this area will end up either demolished or buried among new luxury towers: several pages of that problem are described in gruesome detail in the City’s Environmental Impact Statement.
After studying the many documents on this, my conclusion is this: the scope of this proposal equals the destructiveness of the previous waves of urban renewal that East Harlem has been through. Yes, there will be towers, many of them 30 stories and higher. They will be all along the Avenues and spread out around the 116th and 125th Street subway stops. East Harlem will become like the “tower world” that Yorkville has become.
Recall that the destruction of Yorkville’s historic fabric was once the object of a moving video in which the famous actor Paul Newman urged New Yorkers to fight the demolition of historic Yorkville (which was similar architecturally to East Harlem) and prevent Yorkville’s transformation into an avenue of immense towers.
Click here to watch a still brilliant video: That fight was lost and Yorkville is now officially a mess. Here is a link to a Yorkville walking tour given by an urban designer and planner called, “My Banal Neighborhood”.
In the East Harlem case there may also be an element of race and class. Why, for example, is East Harlem’s tenement and 4-8 story housing stock considered so horrible, so worthy only of demolition rather than rehabilitation and protection? Some kind of hypocrisy is happening on this very point.
Recall that a few months ago, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) granted the “South Village,” a tenement area of Greenwich Village, the historic district status. The argument for doing that was simple: the South Village is a visible remnant of an immigrant neighborhood and the LPC had long neglected the tenement style of architecture there. But then why not do the same favor for East Harlem which has an even bigger tenement district? Is it racism? Or is it because East Harlem residents are poor and don’t have a large enough, well-funded opposition and so can be bullied into accepting towers?
The bad idea of pushing ugly urban design and planning mistakes from the Upper East Side into Harlem did not creep up without warning. Last year, the Council speaker, who represents East Harlem, held “community planning” meetings. The Community Board held meetings too. During all of it, there were significant protests against any up-zoning, mysteriously ignored by the mainstream press. In fact, the up-zoning idea just marched relentlessly forward until last month when the official public review firing gun went off. And as everyone knows, when that happens, the real estate part it over: it takes on the allure of a done deal with the fix already in. The politicians at that point only allow minor tinkering at the margins so they can pretend that the public review process is more than a rubber stamp machine.
But is such a huge up-zoning good for East Harlem? Is it good for the city? Here I argue that it is not and that the underlying premises are flawed. It is, in fact, a tragedy, a 21st-century version of urban renewal, and every bit as destructive as the old urban renewal. It is also a clear attack on the historic city, a process once known as “poor people removal” and sometimes as “negro removal” and now might be called, “removal of rent-stabilized black and Latino families who live in old buildings.” That population will be replaced with prosperous white and Asian families who will live in glass towers and turn the remaining brownstones into single-family homes, if the Regional Planning Association data on gentrification since 2003 is any indication.
All this is doubly horrifying as East Harlem is a neighborhood that has already suffered urban renewal projects that destroyed vast tracts of the neighborhood. Back then, the so-called “slums” (aka, the historic city inhabited by the poor and immigrant) was replaced with towers-in-the-park, now just called “the projects” (see google earth image below)
What the new and old urban renewal plans have in common is a common contempt of 4-8 story historic buildings. In the view of city planners, the Mayor, and Speaker Mark-Viverito, East Harlem is just zoned too low to provide developers with enough incentive to build the towers the City thinks are necessary. But let’s ask the same question the activist organizations in East Harlem are asking: why do any up-zoning changes at all?
According to the Environmental Impact Statement, left alone, East Harlem would produce about 2500 new apartments – in a free market scenario. That’s not enough, says the city: they want an additional 3,000 units which makes for o 2700 luxury, market-rate units and about 900 affordable units, few of which will be affordable to existing East Harlem residents. Those numbers do not look good. Why not create a different kind of plan so that the naturally produced 2500 units that the free market might be inclined to produce will turn out affordable? Our current administration just lacks the policy imagination to even consider that alternative, let alone come up with any ideas that aren’t out of the Real Estate Board of New York’s playbook.
Cruelly, the smaller old buildings are not seen as what they really are: assets that have created an affordable and great human-scale neighborhood, the Spanish Harlem of legend. Just like in the urban renewal days, the old buildings are seen as demolition worthy, owned by slumlords, known to de Blasio as “bad apples.” But many of these old buildings are perfectly habitable and may just need basic maintenance, which could be done were there any political will to force the slumlords into compliance with the law. They are largely full of Mexican immigrants now, who want to stay put. They are rent-stabilized. Many of the residents are organized as “Movement for Justice in El Barrio”. Nobody seems to hear them and listen to their plan to maintain their homes.
Ok, skeptics, I’m not arguing that you cannot or should not build in East Harlem. There are plenty of empty lots, one-story taxpayer buildings, and a shockingly large number of warehoused units (see photo immediately below), as shown by the maps in the Environmental Impact Statement. A lot of the empty lots are smaller infill sites – not the giant super-blocks that big developers prefer. That makes it tricky for those who favor giant housing schemes whose scale props up the wealth of big developers. It suggests that what is needed is a more incremental affordable housing policy for smaller players. And that For East Harlem, you might have to get creative with other policy levers to prevent displacement, which can only get done if you start off with a vision of the human-scale possibilities.
Another issue is: why pick on this neighborhood? East Harlem has suffered several urban renewal projects already. Acres and acres of the old city were already destroyed from the end of the depression to the mid-1960’s. Then East Harlem had a 2003 up-zoning, and then there was an additional up-zoning of the 125th Street corridor just a few years back.
Add to those interventions the fact that a big chunk of the area by the river has already been given over to a posse of developers and speculators for the East River towers. And don’t forget that another large parcel is now in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s hands: they have been flirting with big developer Jonathan Rose for an immense 100% affordable complex that will add to the shadows of Central Park, but is separate from the up-zoning (it is more of a spot-zoning).
That’s already a huge amount of tinkering with East Harlem, not to mention all the other stimulatory urban renewal and empowerment zone initiatives already in place. So has anyone in the City government given a thought about how to preserve East Harlem’s great historic urbanity and to keep it affordable using non-zoning policy levers? It seems not.
The Civitas 2003 up-zoning was basically a contextual overlay with a modest rise in building size on the avenues: it encouraged builders to stick to the street wall for new construction. But, as it turns out, even that well-intentioned plan encouraged the displacement of 20% of the Black and Latino population (according to the Regional Plan Association). You’d think they’d want to stop messing with the place. But the problem may be this: is East Harlem so perilously close to the rest of rich Manhattan that rich people just want it for themselves? Maybe it is as simple as that.
What was never considered was an in-fill development strategy to prevent the wealthy from turning brownstones into single family homes; and to a localized stimulus to top-up the one-story taxpayer lots with contextual housing and to build on the vacant lots in a way that retains East Harlem’s human-scale, perhaps through community land trusts, creative financing, working with small-scale, often community-based developers who work on smaller profit margins, and applying some properly used eminent domain to turn vacant lots and warehoused properties over to land trusts. What we have instead is a developer vision of towers, aka Yorkville. Spanish Harlem will just be a historical fantasy.
The plan will add 30,000 new people to East Harlem, but no new schools, libraries, or parks. Reading the EIS is like reading Orwell’s Animal Farm or a Stalinist tract denying the existence of realities all know about. There will be for sure substantial shadowing of existing parks, community gardens, and recreation. Historic buildings and churches will be demolished or literally “drowned” in surrounding towers, utterly transforming the area from a human-scale place to high-rise Yorkville. All of those consequences is right out of the Environmental Impact Statement, with only the displacement consequence ignored or trivialized
The difference between doing nothing and enacting the up-zoning will (in theory at least) be 3,500 new apartments, 70% of which will be luxury, market-rate housing. That figure of 3,500 is over and above the naturally occurring projected growth rate of about 2,500 new apartments that the free market would build if no re-zoning were to take place. It makes me think: why not develop a policy regime that tweak’s the free market and reforms the rent-stabilization rules to allow East Harlem to remain affordable under the current zoning plan that dates from 2003?
Why put out a plan that is so dramatic and destructive? And the lack of thought about the historic character of the neighborhood is sickening. Of the two churches shown in this essay, one will be torn down, the other surrounded by towers. And not a thought was given to cases like the mansion shown in Figure 7 above. It sits on Marcus Garvey Park, not in a historic district. It houses 17 people in 17 bedrooms who share 4 bathrooms. It is an SRO. It is for sale. Where are those people to go when an investor buys the building and kicks them all out? To the streets as homeless people? Recall that Marcus Garvey Park is where lots of old buildings have already been torn down and replaced with high-rise luxury construction, so “poor people removal” and a teardown is not unlikely.
So is it worth it: to utterly destroy a neighborhood’s character, history, and human-scale, dealing it a final death blow after so much urban renewal errors of the past? What madness is in our city that government insists on removing East Harlem from our history and making it over into the manner of Yorkville, all in the name of a tragically flawed theory about how to create affordable housing?
Sign the petition below. Attend the meetings. Support the opposition. Then get out and vote in the September primaries. Put politicians in office who will not play lapdog to the Mayor’s affordable housing theory.
What to do:
- Click here to sign the petition that is part of a letter writing campaign to the relevant elected officials at City Hall, and read Roger Hernandez’s editorial at City Limits.
- Attend a June 16 (yes, a Friday) CB 11 Rezoning Meeting at the Bonifacio Senior Center, 7 East 116th Street. 6:00 p.m. Show support for the local, no re-zoning contingent.
- Attend a June 20th 6: 30 p.m CB 11 Full board meeting. Show support for the local, no re-zoning crowd. The location: Goldwurm Auditorium at Mount Sinai, 1425 Madison Avenue @ 98th Street.
- Educate yourself. Watch our cable show “All Access Cable – The Human-scale City” episode on East Harlem. We interview Roger Hernandez of El Barrio United and give you a tour of the neighborhood. The show airs tonight, June 13th at 9:30 p.m. If you don’t have cable, you can stream the show at the same, 9:30 p.m., (Click on Channel 1 when you are on the site). If you have cable, here are the channels: Spectrum/TW 34 & on HD Channel 1995; Verizon/Fios 3RCN 82.
1. The City Planning Commission’s “East Harlem Rezoning Proposal”, and the “East Harlem Neighborhood Plan” of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Environmental Impact Statement and HPD’s “East Harlem Housing Plan” Draft of May 1, 2017. Click here to view, or visit the City Limits website.
2. Andrew Dolkart’s “The South Village: A Proposal for Historic District Designation”
3. Regional Plan Association’s various reports, such as the August 2012, “East Harlem Affordable Housing Under Threat” and the August 2016, “Preserving Affordable Housing in East Harlem” and George James, “Performance of the 2003 Rezoning”, October 2015
4. Civitas newsletters and video walking tour of the 2003 Zoning Plan and the “New Zoning for East Harlem” report of Civitas.
5. Reports from 6sqft about the Sendero Verde project, various archived articles from The New York Times.
6. Tour of East Harlem with El Barrio Unite.
Published with permission from New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City.