Thursday, April 24, 2008

125th Street Rezoning Raises Concerns About Preserving Harlem’s Affordability

125th Street Rezoning Raises Concerns About Preserving Harlem’s Affordability
By Betsy Morais

Picket sign in hand, Michael Henry Adams stood in front of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s house on the Upper East Side several months ago to urge the mayor save Harlem. And although he stood there alone, there are many who join him in expressing apprehension about the area’s future.

“If Harlem becomes an empty display case showing what Harlem used to be, all I can say is ‘to hell with that,’” said Adams, a graduate of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Program.
Throughout the neighborhood, the city’s plans to change the face of 125th Street continue to prompt questions about potential loss of local character. As the city seeks to “enhance” the area, some residents worry about how they will be able to afford their homes if the rezoning plan passes and the cost of living goes up and attracts more affluent people to Harlem’s “Main Street.”Last week, the city took a major stepwards achieving its vision for 125th Street when the City Council’s Zoning and Franchises Committee approved a modified version of the City Planning Commission’s original rezoning proposal. At the meeting, Councilwoman Inez Dickens (D-Harlem and Morningside Heights) introduced the modifications which included an increase in affordable housing measures and tougher restrictions on building heights.
“This has been one of the most challenging and difficult issues I have ever faced, personally and professionally, because the rezoning of 125th Street will change the fabric of my district, my community, my home forever,” Dickens told the committee, adding later that, “After many long hours of deliberations, disagreements, and debate, I do believe the City Planning Commission heard me loud and clear.”
Dickens’ alterations requires that 46 percent of housing units in the area be income-targeted—which, if passed, would be the most significant affordable housing program the city has ever guaranteed. Of those 1,785 units, 700 of them will be made permanently affordable, so that they will not be absorbed back into the natural housing market prices once when they are resold.
But local activists, like Voice of the Every Day People’s Craig Schley, fear that the affordable housing costs Dickens secured will still not be within the financial reach of most Harlem residents. “It is the best affordable housing plan in history—for developers,” Schley said.
The focus of concern is the city’s calculation of area median income, a statistic that determines affordable housing designation. The U.S. Census bureau defines a household’s AMI in terms of total family income relative to the local median—which is a more accurate measure than the average since it is not skewed by particularly high or low incomes. The city recorded the AMI of the “primary area,” that generally includes the 125th Street corridor itself—from 124th to 126th streets, between Broadway and Second Avenue—as $17,452. The AMI of the “secondary area,” which extends as far north as 138th Street, and farther south to include Columbia’s neighborhood and below, is $21,663.
Dickens’ Chief of Staff, Lynette Velasco, said that the councilwoman “read all the studies, but the welfare of our people is not contained in a single study.”Yet, Schley said of affordable housing and AMI, “It’s the number that determines what that really means.”
Velasco explained that Dickens took a holistic approach to her affordable housing initiative, using an AMI range between $17,000 and $25,000. “Harlem is more than the core,” Velasco said.
“She was dealing with the total community.”According to the Manhattan Institute’s Director of the Center for Rethinking Development Julia Vitullo-Martin, the city has “every possible combination and permutation of affordable and market housing, with the affordable component done in a million different ways.” For permanent and nonpermanent programs, it all depends on the execution.Zoning and Franchises Committee Chair Tony Avella (D-Queens) was the only member of the committee to vote against the modified 125th Street proposal. “It’s unclear at this point,” he said of the permanently affordable versus income-targeted housing program. “I’m not exactly sure what they mean by that.”
He added, “We voted on it based on her [Dickens’] verbal details.”But Vitullo-Martin explained that affordable housing programs aim “to encourage upward mobility, to help people on the ladder of upward mobility. So, when you impose permanency requirements on projects, on units, then you’re saying one of two things. You’re saying either, ‘We assume that everybody who will be benefiting from this program is going to stay poor,’ or you’re saying, ‘We’re assuming people are going to move up the economic ladder, but then we’re going to kick them out of the unit because they’ve moved up economically.’”
Still, critics of the city’s vision have more fundamental concerns with the plan than housing.
Schley said of the changes, “This is just another song and dance to keep us off the focus.”Avella echoed Schley’s sentiments as he explained why he voted against the modified proposal. “It still doesn’t address the underlying problem of the whole application,” he said, “Whose Harlem does this represent?”
Vitullo-Martin, though, considered this question in different terms. “These things are very hard because what’s the Harlem community and who owns Harlem? Harlem is a very large place,” she said, adding later that: “I don’t think the new development will or won’t sustain the cultural identity of Harlem. I think what sustains the cultural identity of any neighborhood is the people who are there.”
She went on to reflect upon her own recollections of Harlem’s “Main Street.”“This is not a street that has been well-cared for,” she said. “This is a street that just needs tremendous energy, investment, revitalization. It’s not a healthy street. And, you know, listening to these debates, you’d think people were talking about a fabulously healthy street—it isn’t,” she said. “I used to go up to Georgie’s Pastry Shop on 125th Street for their sweet potato pie. ... It was owned by a family that had lived in Harlem forever.”“Listening to activists, you would think that 125th Street is just full of shops like Georgie’s Pastry Shop,” she continued. “But it isn’t.
Georgie’s closed. It wasn’t replaced by anything comparable.”Avella said that “unfortunately” he believes the plan will pass in the upcoming full City Council vote, after the CPC has approved the changes. But he will be voting against it, and activists like Adams and Schley say they will continue to voice opposition.

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