East Harlem faces an uncertain future and so does the neighborhood’s support for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s still-developing plan to rezone it.
The Mayor’s strategy is to rezone East Harlem and 15 other neighborhoods to pack in more dwellings while requiring developers to add more affordable housing units. This would allow more people to live in these neighborhoods while also increasing the number of more affordable apartments.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has struggled to strike a balance between supporting the Mayor’s Tale of Two-Cities affordable housing initiative and representing the concerns of her largely Puerto Rican electorate who fear private developers will price them out of their own communities.
“We have tried to let the problems and challenges the community faces dictate our work plan,” the speaker said before a group of urban planners at the city’s latest MAS Summit on Friday. “By the end of the year, I look forward to sharing our recommendations.”
Her comments came a day after her constituents voiced their concerns about the city’s plan to preserve affordable housing in their neighborhood. The open dialogue took place during a workshop hosted at Dream Charter School.
Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, executive director of Harlem Park to Park, a central Harlem retail business advocacy group, says Thursday’s workshop is exactly the kind of discourse city officials failed to facilitate during rezoning negotiations in Central and West Harlem.
“The communities didn’t feel like they were at the table,” she said. “You can’t do this kind of development without having the local people at the table so they don’t feel like their community is being taken from them.”
Adding to fears in the rezoning negotiations is the up-in-the-air status of the 125th Street Pathmark grocery store site purchased last year by real estate developer Extell Corporation, which plans to build luxury condos there.
The potential loss of Pathmark, the only major grocer in East Harlem, combined with the rezoning effort has locals fearing they’re losing control of their community.
“Many residents of the neighborhood already have limited access to grocery stores,” said Chris Cirillo the executive director of Lott Community Development. “Losing the Pathmark would really have an impact.”
In addition to that, local small businesses fear increased rent prices are pricing them out of the area in favor of major chain retailers like Whole Foods, which started building its new store on 125th and Lenox Avenue after the city inked a rezoning deal at its Central Harlem site back in 2012.
The site also is expected to house a Bed Bath & Beyond and two other major retailers.
“Right now everything’s in flux and I don’t know what direction it will go,” said Nina DeMartini-Day, board member on the New Harlem East Merchants Association.
“But I think 125th street will be fully developed at some point with large structures.”
All this makes the neighborhood’s overhaul seem inevitable, but Mark-Viverito said she’s committed to preserving the culture of East Harlem.
“New challenges will require us to re-work our ideas,” she added Friday. “We will need to stretch ourselves and not be afraid of taking these risks.”