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Three Apartment Towers Could Top Harlem's East River Plaza

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It was reported this week that 1,000 apartments may rise on the roof of the East River Plaza mall on 116th Street in East Harlem, and last night the developers invited the public to weigh in on early plans. Site owners Blumenfeld Development Group and Forest City Ratner shocked the crowd when they revealed massing diagrams showing three residential towers that could stand up to 48-stories tall. Architect Enrique Norton of Ten Arquitectos, the designer of the future buildings said, "Those are the buildings that belong to the sky and those are the buildings that refer to the rest of Manhattan, to the rest of New York. They have the scale of the skyline of New York." The developers' plans also call for a new public open space on East 118th Street, but it was the potential towers that the public cared about the most.

Blumenfeld and Ratner asked the press to not take pictures of presentation slides, but a tipster sent along the above (unreadable) image, which outlines the three residential towers and a public space lined with ground level businesses. The visuals were revealed before a hundred person room maxed at capacity at Hunter College School of Social Work.

Blumenfeld and Ratner submitted a pre-application with city planning, but a formal review process with the public hasn't actually started yet. The developers sought to seek comments before releasing design concepts to the broader public. The presentation involved nondescript diagrams showing three residential towers at 1.1 million square feet and a much more detailed picture of the public space. Residents were given time to respond to the entire project, but the developers' presentation focused mostly on the public space. Still, the image of buildings looming 36, 42 and 48 stories high received a collective gasp from the crowd at first sight.

Plans for the mall first surfaced in 1994, but the complex didn't open until 2009. It was designed and built to support potential residential buildings, but for a while, "the market wasn't there," said Blumenfeld principal David Blumenfeld. He said Randy Daniels, who helped the project early on as a New York politician, wanted to see residential development there. However, even locals that keep a close eye on the neighborhood didn't see the buildings coming. "I never would have thought of it," said Jose Rivera, who has run East-Harlem.com since 1996. "I'm just surprised."

Before this meeting, Blumenfeld and Ratner held a previous public meeting, but it was low-key enough that neighborhood activists were unaware of it. The developers said there also met with local officials, including Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes East Harlem. But however the developers ease into discussion with the community, there could be no blunting the concerns that locals in the upper Manhattan neighborhood have about gentrification, fearing rents will rise and existing residents will be displaced.

Blumenfeld told the crowd his goal is to make 25 perecent or 275 of 1,100 units affordable. In this plan, the affordable priced apartments would be rented by tenants earning 30 to 60 percent of the area median income. Actual projected rents could not yet be divulged. Attendees who spoke on behalf of group conferences suggested percentages as high as 50 to even 80 percent, which generated a mix of applause and laughter. Blumenfeld said later "the project needs to work financially," and that the crowd's response was "not atypical." Pockets of the audience were more welcoming to the development, and the room generally opted to move on to other details.

As such, the attendees mulled the design and concept the of public space planned for a cobblestone cul de sac where East 118th Street ends at a blank wall behind the mall. The design showed glassy walls on top of the store roofs with balconies overlooking a plaza where children played. Residents suggested the ground level businesses be local and not redundant with existing businesses nearby. The crowd also had concerns with congestion and safety at the one-way entrance plaza, as well as the influx of new residents in the now "quiet" area. Many worried about traffic and possibly needing new schools and a medical center. Mount Sinai plans to move to the mall, but only as a dialysis center. Blumenfeld and Ratner didn't seem to have every detail worked out, but mentioned that a shuttle that would go to the 125th Street subway station. Developer representatives took notes at every table discussion.

Future meetings are sure to come. The developers project that the proposal won't be certified for the official Uniform Land Use Review Procedure until early next year.
—Shannon Ayala
· 1,000 Apartments Could Rise Atop East 116th Street Mall [Curbed]
· East River Plaza coverage [Curbed]
· East River Plaza [official]

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