As East Harlem braces for change, Kenneth J. Knuckles finds himself at the center of action.
in the face of significant public opposition, the City Planning Commission and CPC Vice Chair Knuckles approved Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to rezone East Harlem in October. And with this decisive approval, the plan has moved to the City Council for the last stage of the public review process.
East Harlem is the fourth neighborhood to undergo the city’s land use review procedure as a part of de Blasio’s effort to build and preserve over 200,000 units of affordable housing in New York City by 2020. According the proposal, the plan could add 3,500 residential units to the neighborhood over a 96-block stretch and 20 percent of which will be reserved affordable for those earning 30 percent and less of the Area Median Income (AMI).
Knuckles, who voted for the major increase in housing density, has spent decades engaged in efforts to bring economic revitalization and urban renewal to Harlem. Having advocated for the neighborhood as a member of Architects’ Renewal Committee of Harlem (ARCH) and in various positions in city government, his stance on East Harlem’s rezoning is at odds with many in the community.
Reflecting on his affirmative vote, a few days after the plan was approved by CPC, Knuckles pointed out that market-rate development was already happening without a lot of affordability requirements. In the last few years, a number of luxury condominium buildings and other market rate apartments set their foot in the neighborhood, where the median household income for a family of three is $30,973. Beginning construction in 2016, Heritage Real Estate Partner’s upscale condominium building located on East 103rd and 104th streets along Park Avenue had no units reserved affordable and one of its three bedroom duplexes retailed for $3.95 million. This was possible because the zoning code did not require affordability, according to the Department of City Planning.
During public testimonies, the CPC Vice Chair reported that he heard repeated complaints over affordability and how lower income residents would not be accommodated in the new units. “The average family income here is around $30,000 but in order to afford current market rents, one would need to earn about $80,000 for a one-person household or $100,000 for a three-person household. Lower income residents are going to be at a loss unless affordable units are built with a change in the zoning codes,” said Knuckles.
The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone of which he is the CEO, Knuckles stated would also be involved in determining the kinds of businesses utilizing the 275,000 square feet of commercial and industrial space in the rezoning plan, to ensure that those employing locals would be prioritized. UMEZ provides loan capital of $250,000 or more to projects that provide new job creation and substantial economic growth in upper Manhattan.
One of the businesses supported by UMEZ is Bibi Salon, located on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Its owner, Maisha Teacher, received a $115,000 loan that helped her meet the cost of inventory, employing staff, and other day-to-day expenses. “I currently employ 15 females in the area to work in the salon and I’ve been able to garner an impressive clientele over a few years. This wouldn’t have been possible without the initial help from UMEZ,” said Maisha, who is also contemplating opening another location in East Harlem.
And while Kenneth Knuckles is optimistic about the rezoning, one of his colleagues on the planning commission is less than confident. Michelle de la Uz, who has worked in urban planning in Harlem and Washington Heights, voted against the city proposal to rezone East Harlem. The commissioner pointed out that the plan underestimated potential displacement, did not have a record of the locations of rent-regulated and stabilized units, and the time when the regulatory agreements for such units were set to expire.
“There are reports that show around 350 apartments in East Harlem have moved out of rent regulations and rezoning frequently involves demolishing rent-stabilized buildings in its path,” said de la Uz, who has pressed in previous hearings for the city to push for a citywide Certification of No Harassment with stronger supervision of landlords demolishing or renovating buildings in the neighborhood.
In response to her and many other’s concerns, the Department of City Planning at the recent city council hearing affirmed that it would conduct block sweeps of buildings to determine code enforcement issues, study the possibility of a city-wide Certification of No Harassment pilot program, and pointed to 100 percent affordable housing projects being built on city land. HPD commissioner Maria Torres-Springer also ruled out reports calling out possible displacement as merely speculative.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes East Harlem, noted that there were people in the community who don’t want anything to happen and this was not a realistic proposition. Kenneth Knuckles, who saw Harlem transform from an under-resourced neighborhood to a real estate hotspot, agreed with Viverito. “It’s not possible to shut private developers out, but it is possible and obligatory for us to make them contribute to the city’s affordable housing stock,” remarked Knuckles.