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125th Street Rezoning Still Needs Work

apollo theater harlem new york city

The buildings in Harlem are brick and stone, And the streets are long and wide, But Harlem’s much more than these alone, Harlem is what’s inside.

The Heart of Harlem, Langston Hughes

On April 1st 2008, the Municipal Art Society testified at the Land-use and Franchise subcommittee hearing regarding the 125th Street rezoning plan. City Planning has been working for almost four years on this plan. It first emerged as the “River to River Study,” a promise to create a vibrant Harlem Main Street, buttressed on either side by access to two of New York’s Waterfronts. The current plan does not, however, extend from “River to River” but covers the area from Second Avenue to Broadway and from 124th Street to 126th Street with 125th Street as the spine.

The rezoning initiative held the promise to revitalize 125th Street as Harlem’s vibrant mixed-use corridor, maintaining a specific emphasis on the arts and entertainment industry to support Harlem’s unique position as a local, national, and international destination. The proposed plan under review, unfortunately, still falls short of its commendable vision.

At the hearing MAS asked council members to weigh the plan against the following principles:

  1. Respect the existing neighborhood and its special character and promote integrated new development on 125th Street.
  2. Foster Harlem’s arts and culture institutions.
  3. Maintain urban retail diversity.
  4. Include affordable housing that meets the community’s needs.
  5. Plan for waterfront access.

Why are these five principles so crucial? The rezoning proposal as it stands could dramatically alter the current streetscape of 125th Street. One of the proposed sub-districts within the proposed 125th Special District would allow building heights of 290 feet, taller than the State Building. The MAS, along with community civic organizations, believes that any new development on the 125th Street corridor in this sub-district should instead reference the Theresa Hotel. This historic landmark is only 130 feet tall and could serve as a wonderful anchor for a revitalized Main Street. More importantly, many historical resources in the plan’s immediate vicinity that are eligible, yet not protected through preservation laws, must be protected.

Harlem, and 125th Street in particular, not only boasts a rich architectural legacy, which must be protected, but an equally important vibrant cultural life and heritage. One component of the 125th Street rezoning plan supports the creation of an Arts and Entertainment district in the aforementioned sub-district. This plan in creating a small arts and entertainment sub-district misses a one time opportunity to create an extended arts and culture corridor along the entirety of 125th Street, connecting the planned New Amsterdam Special District to the 5th Avenue Museum Mile. The plan also does not contain provisions to ensure that the benefits of the arts and entertainment incentive program are directly derived by locally established arts and entertainment organizations.

City Planning projects that seventy-one stores will close their doors as a direct result of the rezoning. Locally-owned retailers are increasingly under pressure on 125th Street and are hard-pressed to survive. Yet they are arguably the fabric of what makes 125th Street unique, setting it apart from other areas of the city and maintaining it as a destination for tourists who come from near and far. Thus, strategies must be devised to maintain a balanced retail environment, one that does not become dominated by chain and formula stores.

The current proposal will increase residential development on 125th Street, with the majority of the housing projected to be luxury units. While the plan contains voluntary incentives to developers to spur the creation of affordable housing, these “density bonuses” have not proven to generate enough affordable housing to off-set the rapid loss of affordable housing in Harlem. Furthermore, the rules are written such that Harlem residents, who generally earn a median income significantly below that of the rest of the city, would likely not qualify. Consequently, Harlem needs an aggressive affordable housing strategy to make sure that existing community members will enjoy the benefits of development.

Last but certainly not least, waterfront access! How is it that a salt depository managed by the Department of Transportation is allowed to continue to block these neighborhoods’ access to the waterfront on the east? This plan promised in its inception a grand vision of connecting the two waterways on the east and the west through a vibrant commercial corridor buttressed at either side by green spaces leading to the water. This vision must be reestablished.