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Harlem’s Lenox Terrace redevelopment rejected by City Council committee

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The vote foreshadows the project’s rejection by the full City Council

A rendering of the proposed Lenox Terrace expansion.
Davis Brody Bond

A massive redevelopment plan for Harlem’s fabled Lenox Terrace housing complex was unanimously rejected by a City Council subcommittee—signaling doom for the developer’s rezoning proposal in next month’s full City Council vote.

The Olnick Organization, which owns the six, 17-story buildings between 132nd and 135th streets, has proposed an infill project that would add five glassy, 28-story buildings with 1,600 mixed-income apartments—400 of which would be below-market-rate—along with new retail space. In a vote during the Council’s subcommittee hearing on zoning, Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins said that “basic quality of life concerns have not been addressed” throughout the seven-month long public review process, including construction impacts, shadows cast by the towers, and concerns about open space.

“The proposed plan is not appropriate for this community,” said Perkins. “The 28-story towers are simply too tall.”

The plan has faced staunch opposition from several locals and elected officials: Manhattan Community Board 10 and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer recommended against the effort; and the Lenox Terrace Association of Concerned Tenants have for years fought versions of the project, which Olnick has pitched since 2003 only for them to stall.

For many locals, the Lenox Terrace project has stoked gentrification anxieties, as well as fears that Harlem’s identity as a center of black American culture is at risk as more newcomers move to the area. New construction is peppered throughout the neighborhood, which currently has a median asking rent of $2,500/month, according to StreetEasy data. In 2017, the average household income was roughly $50,000, 19 percent less than the citywide median of about $62,000, according to NYU’s Furman Center.

Olnick has offered to make $33 million in upgrades to existing tenants’ apartments and has proposed a suite of amenities, including six acres of green space. The developer made a handful of tweaks to its application throughout the review process, such as switching to a commercial overlay of the site’s existing zoning instead of pursuing a new commercial district that would enable big-box retail, and offered to reduce the size of the five new apartment buildings from 28 to 19 stories in negotiations with the tenants’ association.

But the tenants’ group and city lawmakers were unmoved.

“The project before us failed to provide the robust infrastructure needed and deserved by this community and includes no mechanisms to protect residents from temporary burdens such as construction noise or longer rent increases,” said Queens Councilmember Francisco Moya, who is the chairman of the zoning subcommittee.

Jennifer Fermino, the Council’s communications director, said in a statement that Council Speaker Corey Johnson “hopes the owners of this property go back to the drawing board and work to rebuild trust with their tenants and their community and address the very real concerns they have raised.”

Seth Schochet, the president of Olnick, said in a statement that the subcommittee vote is “unfortunate.” Without the rezoning, Olnick plans to move forward with a slightly scaled down version of the project without any of the affordable housing or amenities.

“We have been pursuing options that require public approval rather than simply using the half-million square feet of development now allowed on the site because we believed that achieving these benefits was important to our residents and the community,” said Schochet. “None would be attained without a rezoning.”