Wednesday, April 2, 2008

City Council Holds Hearing on 125th Street Rezoning

City Council Holds Hearing on 125th Street Rezoning
By Alix Pianin
City Hall hosted over 100 local activists, city officials, and concerned Harlem residents at a public hearing Tuesday on plans to change the face of 125th Street.

The proposal to rezone “Harlem’s Main Street” was assembled and recently passed by the City Planning Commission, but has been the focus of intense debate. Councilwoman Inez Dickens (D-Harlem), who had been a dedicated collaborator on the Commission’s efforts, came to challenge the plan during the hearing.

Dickens said that she would not support the proposal without enhanced affordable and low-income housing provisions, more substantial height restrictions on building developments, financial assistance for the 71 Harlem businesses that would be displaced, and closer attention to environmental concerns and health programs.

“I fight because my people are my future—to improve the quality of life for those who have elected me to serve,” Dickens said. “I will not walk away from that fight, as easy as that would be.”

Dickens has come under fire in the past from some local activists who claimed that she failed to champion the rights of her constituents while working with the City Planning Commission on Columbia’s rezoning project in Manhattanville.

City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden argued that, without rezoning, the economic and cultural status of 125th St. corridor would be put at risk. The area’s current zoning, which hasn’t been updated since the 1960’s, includes no provisions for affordable housing, nor are there height restrictions on the buildings or preservation of historic Harlem landmarks, Burden explained to packed chambers.

“If you did nothing ... there would be no affordable housing, there would be no affordable jobs, there would be no arts and entertainment,” Burden said.

But the four-and-a-half year process of weighing city and community concerns, she said, has proven difficult. Citing height limits on buildings as an example, she explained how lower buildings would mean fewer apartment complexes and may curtail housingopportunities for residents.

“It really is a balancing act,” Burden said. “It really is a judgment of what you gain and what you lose.”

“To do nothing ... will be a huge mistake,” former Deputy Manhattan Borough President Derek Johnson said. But, he conceded, “The present plan is far from perfect.”

Regina Smith, who runs the Harlem Business Alliance, called for improved protection of local businesses, especially those in danger of being forced out. She recommended the creation of some legislative means that would aid local entrepreneurs, since she believes that rezoning means “greater displacement forces than those currently affecting the community.”

But Harlem resident William Anderson pointed out that “change is inevitable,” adding that he fears change and that the “current zoning gives no protection for my community that I have lived in for 53 years.”

Before the hearing began, Harlem advocacy group Voices of the Everyday People started the rezoning discussion on their own terms, holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall.

VOTE founder Craig Schley announced that the organization would invoke City Charter clause stating that, if landowners who make up 20 percent of the property formally protest a rezoning proposal, City Council needs a three-quarters vote to pass it, instead of just a Council majority.

Lawyer and Public Advocate candidate Norman Siegel, who last week filed a lawsuit against Columbia and the city on behalf of Manhattanville property owner Nick Sprayregen, said he could not recall a past case where this 110 year-old charter had been invoked. This particular instance, he said, would be the perfect opportunity to finally put the state provision to work.

According to Schley, calling upon this provision “shifts the strength of the process.” Schley said he felt it would give Harlem residents additional control over the fate of their own neighborhood.

City Councilman and Zoning Subcommittee Chair Tony Avella (D-Queens) spoke in favor of VOTE’s efforts, condemning what he saw as local politician’s failure to listen to the calls of their constituency as an “absolute disgrace.”

Though Avella, who is running for mayor in 2009, is not optimistic about VOTE’s chances in court with the charter clause, he said, “When it comes to 125th Street rezoning, whose issue vision of Harlem does this reflect?”

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