Friday, January 25, 2008

Opposition to 125th St. Rezoning Persists

Opposition to 125th St. Rezoning Persists
By Sara Vogel

Those opposing 125th Street rezoning have a new advocate. But even with civil rights attorney Norman Siegel at the helm, the Harlem-based Voice of the Everyday People still faces an uphill battle.

Siegel, best known around the neighborhood as the lawyer-sidekick of Manhattanville holdout Nick Sprayregen, joined the ranks of VOTE People at a press conference Thursday. The former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Siegel plans to defend Sprayregen against Columbia—in a case they hope to take to the Supreme Court—on the issue of eminent domain.
Siegel pledged to take legal action on behalf of the anti-rezoning organization if necessary. VOTE People has called for the withdrawal of the city’s 125th Street plan, which the organization fears would change forever the face and demographics of Harlem’s main commercial strip.

Difficulties for VOTE People’s campaign will stem from the red tape of the city’s seven-month-long land use review process. The Department of City Planning’s proposal seeks to change zoning rules for the 24-block corridor contained between 124th and 126th Streets and between Broadway and Second Avenue. This would replace some of the older, less economically vigorous buildings in the area with denser commercial, retail, and residential development.

City Planning literature states that the plan was designed to improve traffic, bring more lively storefronts and arts and entertainment establishments to the neighborhood, and maintain the character of the lower-scale brownstone-lined blocks. Commissioner Amanda Burden wrote in a statement that the Department held 200 meetings with over 100 local groups and community leaders over four years to draft the rezoning proposal.

But VOTE People and the plan’s other detractors say many residents and business leaders’ concerns were not taken into account at public meetings.

“They [the Department of City Planning] have made it an art of having meetings where they say ‘this is what we’re going to do’ and call it a dialogue,” said Michael Henry Adams, a local resident and author of “Harlem: Lost and Found.”

Community Boards 9, 10, and 11 and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer have estimated that the plan would result in the displacement of 71 local businesses and a rise in the area’s average rent. They have also predicted that, despite the 20 percent of the new 2,600 apartment units classified as “affordable housing,” the definition of “affordable” would still be too high for most Harlem residents.

Mylinda Lee, an MTA worker and Harlem resident who came to the conference on her lunch break, said the market rate in Harlem for a three-bedroom apartment was approaching $3200 per month. “I’m a single mother,” she said. “How can I afford this?”

VOTE People has echoed these concerns, but unlike the Community Boards and Stringer’s office, which have said they will support the plan if it is modified to address affordable housing and other issues, VOTE People wants the city to scrap the plan entirely.

“They would like you to think of this [the city’s review procedure for the rezoning plan] as a runaway train,” Craig Schley, executive director for VOTE People, said. “You could simply derail it.”

Schley did not elaborate on the concrete ways VOTE People plans to accomplish this goal, but he did mention that Siegel could play a role by helping the group to wage legal battles if future developers put eminent domain on the table.

Since the plan is likely to pass the City Planning Commission with Burden’s support, VOTE People will have to convince a majority of the City Council to oppose the measure.

A spokesperson for Councilwoman Inez Dickens, D-Harlem, was tight-lipped about Dickens’ opinion on the matter. “She studies things a lot,” the spokesperson said. In the case of Columbia’s application to rezone Manhattanville, many other council members deferred to Dickens and Councilman Robert Jackson, both of whom favored Columbia’s plan.

At a rally against Columbia’s expansion plan this past fall, Siegel said, “Politicians stand with the money interests and ignore the people who put them in power. We have to break that model.” Though Siegel was referring to the Manhattanville project, his new commitment to the 125th Street dispute draws forth that sentiment once again.

But Mercedes Narciso, who worked with Community Board 9 to draft its alternate development plan for Manhattanville, said that in her 10 years of experience in the field, she has not known of any proposals that were stopped in the middle of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
“Minor things change, but stopping completely the proposal, I doubt it,” Narciso said. “They’re going to work very hard for those little changes to happen.”

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