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East Harlem rezoning ripped by locals at City Council hearing

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“East Harlem is not for sale”

Emotions ran high during yet another City Council meeting this week regarding rezoning; after Tuesday’s hearing on the former Pfizer site in Williamsburg, the City Council’s zoning subcommittee met on Wednesday to hear public testimony about the rezoning of East Harlem.

During the meeting, speakers from the Department of City Planning (DCP), as well members of the public, were given the opportunity to make their case for and against the city’s rezoning proposal, which would bring thousands of new apartments (including permanent affordable housing) to the neighborhood.

But unsurprisingly, given the community pushback in the months since the rezoning process formally kicked off, opposing voices were far louder—both figuratively and literally. At one point, some of the assembled activists began chanting “East Harlem is not for sale,” a reference to one of the main arguments against the rezoning plan—the fact that it could bring a large number of market-rate apartments to the area, while potentially displacing long-term, lower-income East Harlem residents.

City Council chair Melissa Mark-Viverito—whose district includes East Harlem/El Barrio, along with several Bronx neighborhoods—noted at one point that “there are people in the community who don’t want anything to happen… to me, that’s not a realistic proposition.”

Mark-Viverito has championed the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, which is intended to be “a community-based road map for long-term neighborhood growth and development,” though critics have called it “rezoning lite.” It advocates for zoning changes to increase density in certain areas and preserve affordable housing, while limiting the scope more than the DCP’s plan.

The rezoning plan proposed by DCP—which was recently approved by the City Planning Commission, with some modifications—would affect approximately 96 blocks in East Harlem, bounded by East 104th Street to the south, East 132nd Street to the north, Park Avenue to the west and Second Avenue to the east.

Its aim, according to DCP executive director Purnima Kapur, is to “preserve and enhance” East Harlem by upzoning certain parts of the neighborhood, while working to maintain the existing character of others. DCP has used the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan as a blueprint in some ways, but also goes further—for example, DCP’s plan would allow for buildings as tall as 32 stories along certain avenues.

“East Harlem is changing as we speak,” Kapur noted during the meeting, arguing that DCP’s plan will force developers to create much-needed permanent affordable housing (by triggering the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program), along with street-level improvements and economic development opportunities.

But members of the public who showed up to testify weren’t convinced; more than a dozen local residents, community stakeholders, and activists spoke passionately against the project and about how it would displace East Harlem’s low-income communities.

Linda Corselis, a born-and-raised East Harlem resident who lives in a Mitchell Lama building in the neighborhood said most East Harlem residents would not be able to afford the affordable units created as a result of the rezoning. She went on to excoriate Mayor Bill de Blasio, saying he was beholden to real estate developers.

“Bill de Blasio is getting a lot of money from developers, and now the pay back is to construction buildings in East Harlem that we can’t afford,” she said at the meeting on Wednesday. “We are now getting pushed out of the neighborhoods we were born and raised in.”

The most impassioned among those speaking out against the rezoning proposal were members of the community organization Movement for Justice in El Barrio. Ashley Ramos, a member of the group, said the rezoning in Harlem would follow a pattern already seen in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, where the 2005 rezoning displaced many longterm residents.

“East Harlem is fighting against Trump’s xenophobic policies and De Blasio’s displacement policies,” Ramos said at the meeting. “De Blasio’s plan only benefits the real estate industry. We, the low income people, cannot afford the market-rate or so-called affordable units. Developers will get to build higher than ever before and rake in even more profits.”

Ramos went on to blame Mark-Viverito for ignoring the concerns of its organization. Mark-Viverito immediately countered saying her office had tried to schedule multiple meetings with the community organization but to no avail. Ramos went on to suggest that her organization had been trying to do the same with Mark-Viverito’s office for quite some time as well.

Only two people spoke in favor of the rezoning: a representative of a local developer, and a member of 32BJ SEUI, the property services workers union. He argued that with certain commitments, like promises from the city to hire local residents, the rezoning could benefit the 1,200 members of the union that live in the neighborhood.

The argument remained unresolved by the end of the public testimony, which went on for several hours. The project still has to be voted on by the full City Council, and Mark-Viverito assured those present at Wednesday’s meeting that there would be several other community meetings before that happened.