Before representing Central Harlem on the City Council, Inez Dickens was a developer there. But of all the deals she struck in her previous profession, none comes close to the changes she announced today to the city’s contentious plan for rezoning 125th Street, so sweeping were they that could even shape future rezonings citywide. She presented her amendments to the plan before the council’s zoning subcommittee, which then voted 10-1 in favor of the revised rezoning.
Building on complaints from Community Board 10 and other concerned citizens, Dickens negotiated with the Bloomberg administration for an increase in affordable housing, a reduction in proposed building heights along the street’s core, a relocation fund for impacted businesses, and a strengthening of the arts bonus program, and nearly $6 million in improvements to Marcus Garvey Park.
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“Much has been said about the impacts of this plans and its focus on Harlem’s past, present, and future,” Dickens said. “It is my opinion that all of the components I have worked so hard to secure to protect my community will honor Harlem’s past, claim Harlem’s present, and provide for Harlem’s bright, expansive future.”
Dickens was applauded by a number of colleagues on the subcommittee for what they called one of the most progressive rezoning any of them could remember. “This is a major accomplishment that sets a template and a blueprint for all those communities of diversity that exist in our city,” said Bronx Councilmember Larry Seabrook, who also envisions the new rezoning leading to “a second Harlem Renaissance.”
The plan, announced last October, met with widespread opposition from the community, which had already been reeling from gentrification and feared the rezoning would only exacerbate the problem. The City Planning Commission, which certified the plan last month, maintained that with height restrictions and an enticements for cultural development, it would preserve the community’s character while providing for its future.
The community then turned to Dickens for support, but she had remained silent throughout the land-use review process, until two weeks ago, when she declared, “There will be no rezoning plan signed into law if I do not get the protection for my community.” Councilmember Robert Jackson, who represents Washington Heights and West Harlem, a small part of which is within the rezoning, bowed to Dickens’ efforts. “I’ve never seen anyone work as long and as hard on any issue,” he said.
“Affordable housing was the first priority, with small business and cultural institutions a close second,” Dickens said. As a result, she has secured the largest block of affordable housing within any rezoning. Of the roughly 3,900 units the rezoning will create, 46 percent will be income targeted, with 900 guaranteed at 60 percent of the area-median-income and 200 units at 40 percent. And 50 percent of all affordable units will be two bedrooms or larger, to provide for family housing.
The revisions also create a $750,000 forgivable loan program to assist in the relocation of the 71 businesses the Department of City Planning expects could be displaced by the rezoning, which would be moved to within ten-blocks of 125th Street. There is also a $1 million fund to help for the potential relocation of other businesses on the street.
The pioneering arts bonus, which restricts development rights at the core of the zone unless an arts or cultural organization is given space, will now be overseen by an advisory board to ensure the organizations are representative of the Harlem’s indigenous artistic community. The terms of the arts leases have also been increased from five years to 15 years, with the option for two additional five-year terms.
The plan will be voted on tomorrow by the full Land-Use Committee, which tends to follow the recommendations of the subcommittee. It then moves back to the Department of City Planning, where some of the modifications will have to go back through the months-long ULURP process.
While some may remain resistant to the plan—zoning subcommittee chair Tony Avella said it is still a troublesome example of the city’s preference for “top-down development”—many of its earlier critics are thrilled. Community Board 10 Chair Franc Perry said he was thrilled that his board’s dissenting resolution served as a guide Dickens’ negotiations.
“We’re very excited with the changes because the they took our objections and them realized,” he told AN. “All the things we wanted to happen have to fruition. We were told this day would never come, but here we are.”