Thursday, May 1, 2008

Council Approves Rezoning of 125th Street, Over Loud Protests of Some Spectators

Published: May 1, 2008

The boos and cries of “sellout” and “liar” came so loudly and persistently that the entire audience was removed. But in the end, the City Council overwhelmingly approved a plan on Wednesday to rezone 125th Street in Harlem.

The Council approval augurs the most significant change to the avenue in nearly half a century, one that supporters say will bring new businesses and housing, and that opponents say will forever alter Harlem’s character for the worse by ushering in a new wave of gentrification.

“When I came into office, we promised to stimulate economic growth and strengthen neighborhoods across the city, and our plan for the area around Harlem’s famed 125th Street is the latest example of how were doing it,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in a statement. “Not only does the plan lay the foundation for economic growth on Harlem’s Main Street, but also it preserves its noted brownstones and reinforces its arts and culture heritage.”

The 47-to-2 vote came after months of political and legal squabbling that has divided Harlem among those who believe the rezoning will lead to an improvement in the quality of stores and the availability of services in the neighborhood, and those who believe the changes will turn 125th Street into a generic Manhattan thoroughfare lined with skyscrapers, chain stores and a new set of wealthy residents.

On Wednesday, members of those two groups sat side by side in the City Council chambers, some clapping politely in support of the plan, the others angrily denouncing Harlem’s three Council representatives — Inez E. Dickens, Robert Jackson and Melissa Mark-Viverito — who all supported the rezoning.

After a series of disruptions, in which audience members shouted “sellout” and “liar” and booed loudly as Ms. Dickens tried to explain why the rezoning was an important step forward for Harlem, the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, and the city’s public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, asked that the chamber’s balcony, where the audience was sitting, be cleared of spectators by police officers.

But Councilman Charles Barron brokered an agreement with the officers and City Council security, and only a few of the 100 spectators were ejected.

Once the meeting was back in session, however, the shouting and catcalls resumed during remarks by Mr. Jackson. After Ms. Quinn and Ms. Gotbaum, who was presiding, asked again for the room to be cleared, police officers and City Council security escorted everyone outside the building. As they left, they sang, “We Shall Overcome.”

The meeting was interrupted for about 30 minutes, and the vote was eventually held in the Council chambers with only council members, council staff members, law enforcement personnel and reporters present. Council and administration officials said they could not recall another meeting in which the chambers were cleared of spectators.

Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster, who voted for the rezoning, said she was concerned that the audience was treated harshly because its members were predominantly black and Latino.

“We had more officers in here than we’ve had in the chambers ever before,” she said. “I hope we did it across the board and not based on color.”

Ms. Dickens said that her recent discussions with the Bloomberg administration had vastly improved the proposal, and she said the rezoning was supported by a broad cross-section of Harlem. “I need no one to document my commitment to my community,” she said. “I was born in Harlem.”

The vote itself had become a formality after Ms. Dickens, Mr. Jackson and Ms. Mark-Viverito agreed to the rezoning last month in exchange for pledges from the Bloomberg administration that included additional units of moderately priced housing, government loans for 71 businesses that may be displaced, and about $5.8 million in improvements for Marcus Garvey Park.

Including the 125th Street plan, the Bloomberg administration has now rezoned more than 6,000 blocks since 2002 as part of its effort to revamp the city’s zoning laws, many of which had not changed since 1961.

City officials said none of the other plans had been as hotly contested as the rezoning of 125th Street, which is far more modest in size than previous rezonings, but which threatens to transform what has long been the symbolic center of African-American cultural life.

The plan calls for 24 blocks of Harlem to be rezoned, stretching from Broadway east to Second Avenue, and from 124th to 126th Street. The Bloomberg administration said its intent was to remake 125th Street, now dominated by four- and five-story buildings with small businesses on the first floors, into a regional business hub with 19-story office towers and more than 2,000 new market-rate condominiums. The plan includes incentives for arts- and entertainment-related businesses.

The Bloomberg administration and Ms. Dickens have said that an agreement they negotiated reserves 46 percent, or 1,758, of the 3,858 total new residential units that would be permitted to be built in the rezoned area as moderately priced housing.

But according to the formal agreement, signed on April 15 by Deputy Mayor Robert C. Lieber, only about 5 percent of the housing — or about 200 units — would be affordable for families earning $30,750 or less.

Post a Comment