Monday, January 29, 2007

IMPLICATIONS: Rezoning 125th

Columbia Spectator

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IMPLICATIONS: Rezoning 125th
By Anna Phillips
Issue date: 1/29/07 Section: News

Media Credit:
NYC Dept. of Planning
[Click to enlarge]

Few landmarks determine the Harlem landscape like the monolithic Adam Clayton Powell building and the Apollo sign, but these landmarks may not always dwarf their surroundings. New zoning plans proposed by the city for the 125th Street corridor will create guidelines for development that, if approved, will radically change the landscape of Harlem's main street within the next decade.

Under new zoning, the plan would turn the area into a denser, busier corridor with taller buildings. Ground floor space would be denied to banks, hotels, and residences in favor of retailers and other establishments designed to turn the street into a lively pedestrian thoroughfare. The area subject to these changes are the 24 blocks contained between 124th and 126th streets and between Broadway and Second Avenue, with several places excluded from the plans because they are part of other development projects.

The 125th Street corridor rezoning does not include areas west of Broadway because Columbia's proposed Manhattanville expansion plan, as well as Community Board 9's 197-a plan already provide zoning proposals for this area. CB9's 197-a plan is more akin to the 125th rezoning plan as both are visions of an area with the intent of attracting developments rather than plans for specific building projects. On the east side, the zoning changes stop at Second Avenue, where city zoning plans particular to East Harlem take over.

The existing zoning for 125th Street, which dates back to 1961, calls for mostly low to medium density commercial and residential development. What this means is that a grocery store and an apartment building can share the same block, but will likely not exceed five stories in height. In the past, zoning changes in Harlem have generally consisted of individual modifications made and petitioned by developers. On a case-by-case basis, 125th Street and its surrounding environs have begun to change, but with no comprehensive vision in place to guide the process.

Several areas are marked for manufacturing and high-density commercial purposes and, because of financial incentives created by the Community Reinvestment Act for banks that locate in low-income areas, numerous banks populate the street.

The Culture Corridor

Within the rezoning boundaries, the city has designated a smaller section as the Arts and Entertainment Core Subdistrict, in the center of 125th Street. This is the stretch from Frederick Douglass Boulevard to midway between Malcolm X Boulevard and Fifth Avenue, and is based around the Apollo Theater, the Studio Museum of Harlem, and the Victoria Theater, which is currently undergoing redevelopment.

According to Rachaele Raynoff, the press secretary for the Department of City Planning, the placement of the arts district was also based on the area being a transportation hub on 125th where subway lines and bus stations convene.

Under the plan, the new zoning for this subdistrict would promote the growth of cultural institutions. While ground floor space would be denied to banks, hotels and residential uses throughout the area-specifically within this subdistrict-priority would be given to what the draft scope of the Environmental Impact Statement calls "active uses." New venues with 60,000 square feet of floor area or more would have to devote five percent of their total floor area to arts and entertainment related activities. The document lists acceptable venues such as art galleries, auditoriums, bookstores, music stores, and art studios.

Some business owners are excited about the proposed changes and look forward to a possible increase in tourism.

JC Ramos, an assistant manager of Lids, a hat store on 125th Street, noted that most of the store's business comes from tourists who journey uptown to see the Apollo and then cross the street for souvenirs and shopping.

"I think it [the rezoning] is good," he said. "Expanding makes Harlem more tourist friendly.This may be good news for music store owner Sikhulu Shange, who opened the Record Shack on 125th Street some 35 years ago and has been struggling to pay his $10,000 a month rent.

Shange, like a number of other business owners on the street, was unaware of the rezoning plans."We just work so hard that we can't get out and talk to those who are in touch with City Hall," he said.

Shange remained uncertain that the change would be beneficial."It's hard to say what is going to be good for us," he said. "Because whatever comes in here, it will all be foreign to the community."

Affordable Housing

Aside from creating a vibrant pedestrian experience, as nearly every sentence in the draft scope emphasizes, the plans also address the issue that pervades Manhattan: affordable housing.

According to the draft scope document, in areas rezoned for medium to high density residential development, developers could gain bonus floor area depending on the amount of lower-income housing they provide. To be eligible, a developer would have to dedicate at least 20 percent of a development's floor area to affordable housing.

The document defines low-income housing as units that are affordable to those at or below the 80 percent of Area Median Income. To qualify, the units must remain permanently affordable and must be built in the same community district or in a neighboring district within a half-mile of the market rate units.

"What they [HPD] want to achieve is an incentive that will actually work and will happen without being a disincentive to new housing construction," Raynoff said.

"And that's what we're getting, it's working."
Similar incentives are being used in Hudson Yards and Williamsburg.

In addition to the floor space bonus, new housing developments can qualify for city, state, and federal subsidy programs that reward affordable housing with tax breaks.

Along 125th between Broadway and Morningside Drive, the proposed zoning does not include the affordable housing bonus, nor does it increase the density or FAR (floor area ratio) standards.

Part of the reason for this is the General Grant Houses, a New York City Housing Authority project that covers a large expanse of this area on the south side of 125th. Built as "tower in the park" structures, the General Grant Houses are exactly what the new zoning plans are trying to avoid. They are built away from the street and face towards one another, creating an insular environment typical of 1950s and '60s public housing. What the DCP wants, and has developed a plan to create, is a bustling streetscape with building walls that face forward, looking onto the street. With this in mind, it's no surprise that Raynoff mentioned Jane Jacobs' work several times in the course of explaining the plan's goals.

Additionally, this stretch of 125th street has low density zoning, and Raynoff said the DCP is working to "reflect the existing, built character" of the neighborhood. Visually, what this could mean is that between Columbia's proposed Manhattanville campus and the medium-to-high-density proposed commercial district on 125th would be a valley of lower buildings.

Columbia's proposed expansion plans and the DCP's draft scope are in accord, as Columbia's designs show that no streets on its Manhattanville campus would be closed like 116th Street. This would allow the two plans to join on Broadway.

"Essentially every step we made is fully aware of the strengths of the surrounding communities and the desire to knit what we're doing into the surrounding communities. No streets are being closed in our plan." said senior executive vice president Robert Kasdin.

What's to Come

At a Jan. 18 meeting held by the DCP and local elected officials in the Adam Clayton Powell building, West, East and Central Harlem community members gathered to discuss the draft scope of the EIS.

Among the many voices, there were those who feared that commercialization would turn 125th Street into a carbon copy of other large thoroughfares like 34th Street and 14th Street. Others voiced approval for the increased density and creation of a main commercial district.

"We want low-income housing. We want something for us old Harlemites. We don't just want developers coming in and getting rich. What do we get back?" said attendee Dr. John Norvell.

"We're not about to turn 125th Street into 42nd Street or Wall Street."

Kay Samuels agreed. "At this point I feel like downtown is coming for Harlem, and we have to put a stop to it," she said. "Where are our politicians when we need them?"

Walter South, a member of Community Board 9, wrote in a memo to Edwin Marshall, a DCP project manager, that "the key to improving 125th Street is not the issue of rezoning but of improvements in public transportation." In his memo, South outlined the formula for another vision of 125th in which the street would be transformed into a pedestrian mall and traffic would be diverted to 124th and 126th streets.

Joining the chorus of suggestions, the 125th Street Business Improvement District, a non-profit group composed of about 100 businesses in Harlem, has suggested an alternate plan that would create incentives for cultural developments.

Eric Washington, a Manhattanville historian and author, said he was concerned that the plan would homogenize the area. "I'm not sure that there's a consensus on what people mean by 'cultural centers' and things like that," he said. "Harlem is not monolithic and it's a big community, geographically. There are a lot of different experiences in Harlem ... and I think it would be very wrong to think of 125th Street as a single street."

Following DCP procedure, individuals and elected officials will be given ten days to respond to the draft scope of the EIS.Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Councilwoman Inez Dickens have requested that the comment period be extended.After this, the DCP will compose a draft of the EIS. "We are certainly hoping to do this in the first half of the year," said Raynoff. But I don't want to make a commitment, these things sometimes shift a little bit."

Hayley Negrin and Sara Vogel contributed to this article.

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