Harlem has long been a divided community, between color and creed, between haves and have-nots. The Bloomberg administration’s recent proposal to rezone 125th Street, Harlem’s historic, cultural, and economic epicenter, has brought some of those groups together while pushing others further apart. On January 30, during a hearing of the City Planning Commission on the project, these divisions and alliances came into full focus.
For landlords, developers, and the street’s numerous arts institutions, the city’s plan is an opportunity to secure their economic triumph in a long-suffering neighborhood. But local residents, businesses, and some politicians fear the changes may threaten those who have stood by Harlem through the highs and lows by choice, circumstance, or both.
Relative to the recent spate of rezonings across the five boroughs, the 125th Street plan is modest in size, covering only 24 blocks running along a 1.6-mile strip from Broadway to Second Avenue, but it stands to have a major impact, for good or ill, on a community already under duress.
As City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden declared back in September when the plan was certified, “This comprehensive initiative will fulfill the promise of Harlem’s ‘Main Street’ as a vibrant corridor and a premier arts, entertainment, and commercial destination in the city.” But others see it as the latest tremors of gentrification. Craig Schley, who founded VOTE People to oppose the rezoning, said Harlemites would never accept the city’s proposal. “With the stroke of a pen, you will achieve as much destruction as Hurricane Katrina,” he told commissioners, underscoring the racial sensitivity of the project.
Many, however, are excited by the proposal, perhaps none more so than local arts organizations such as the Apollo Theater, the Studio Museum, and the National Jazz Museum. They stand to benefit because the rezoning creates a special arts and cultural sub-district at the center of 125th Street. There, any new building must devote five percent of its space to an arts organization in order to achieve maximum square-footage on the site. “I want to go back to a time when I couldn’t count the arts and cultural institutions on two hands, there were so many,” JoAnn Price, vice chair of the Apollo Theater Foundation, told AN.
To create new commercial space, much of which is underutilized because of 125th Street’s generally small lots, the street has been upzoned to allow for larger and denser buildings; to counteract overdevelopment, height caps have also been instituted for the first time. These concentrate development between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X boulevards and the Metro-North station at Park Avenue. This and similar measures have gained the support of the 125th Street Business Improvement District and other economic groups hoping to capitalize on the projected 6,000 jobs the new commercial buildings will create.
But some developers still want more, such as the Vornado Realty Trust, whose representatives asked the commission during the hearing for an exception in order to build the Harlem Park, a high-end office tower at 125th Street and Park Avenue. This request drew jeers from the crowd, who see it as emblematic of the overdevelopment threatening the area.
For Nelly Bailey, director of the Coalition to Save Harlem, Harlem Park is precisely the sort of project she is defending against. “They are handing us something that will destroy Harlem,” Bailey told the commission. She then described the proposal as “Mayor Bloomberg’s masterplan, on a scale that has not been seen since Robert Moses. It is a plan that seeks to replace a working class community of color with an affluent white community.”
Franc Perry, chair of Community Board 10, which voted against the rezoning, said that Harlem is not opposed to development, and in many cases needs it. Instead, the concern is whether Harlemites will be driven out. “We understand that change is inevitable,” he told AN, “but there has to be change with conscience, with consensus from the community.”