Saturday, March 1, 2014

Talking Past and Future for East Harlem

Willa Hutner

 P.S. 109 was discussed at the East Harlem Revitalization and Rezoning panel organized by CIVITAS and the National Academy in December. Artspace and El Barrio’s Operation Fightback are converting the former school at 215 East 99th Street into affordable housing for artists. Photo by El Barrio’s Artspace.on Fightback are converting the former school at 215 East 99th Street into affordable housing for artists. Photo by El Barrio’s Artspace.

The second of a three-part series of lectures  co-organized by CIVITAS and the National Academy took place on December 4th. The series was designed to explore ways in which architects, planners, activists, scientists, and city agencies can work together to improve urban environments. The first discussion, described in CIVITAS’s winter newsletter, focused on the East River Esplanade. This one dealt with urban revitalization and East Harlem rezoning. 

Projects now under way in East Harlem show successful revitalization efforts and point the way forward. The question is whether East Harlem’s problems are so different from those in other neighborhoods that solutions that work there would not be transferable elsewhere. By the end of the discussion it was clear that projects now transforming the face of East Harlem are not only inspiring; they are also applicable elsewhere.

Moderator Karrie Jacobs, Contributing Editor of Metropolis and founding Editor-in- Chief of Dwell, opened the discussion with slides of atypical beauty in American cities. Beauty in an urban environment can include elements beyond our usual vocabulary. In her classes at the School of Visual Arts, she uses these examples to bring her students to an understanding of what is valuable in zoning.

The first panelist, architect Peter Gluck, made a distinction between zoning’s effect on the future and the changes now occurring in East Harlem. The High Line and the surrounding gentrification it has spawned are familiar. So are other dramatic changes to the city skyline.  Less well known are the moderate-cost buildings that not-for-profit institutions have managed to get built, vastly improving their ability to carry out their mission. These institutions are the anchors of any community. The first step in any urban revitalization is to become aware of the city already being built “under the radar”.

Second panelist Gus Rosado is Executive Director of El Barrios’s Operation Fightback, the first organization to bring small homes to first-time buyers in East Harlem. Public School (P.S.) 109, a school that was abandoned for twelve years, is now being renovated into ninety affordable live-and-work space for artists, as well as space available to community groups. 

Third panelist Matthew Washington, Chairman of Community Board 11 and CIVITAS Advisory Board member, argued that zoning is a powerful tool to create positive change in East Harlem where a great number of residents are facing difficult circumstances. The area has the city’s highest density of public housing. The average income is $32,000; the poverty rate exceeds 40%. Two thirds are either overweight or obese. Planners should approach rezoning here differently. They should begin by not considering building height or mass, or preservation vs. redevelopment, or gentrification, though rising land prices make that likely. Any rezoning scheme must support the needs of the community, and should aim toward promoting education, health, employment, affordable housing, and open space. It should find a way to take advantage of the Metro-North viaduct, and to bring industrial zones back to life. Zoning is a tool, and it should be used for a purpose. 

From left, CIVITAS Chairman Genie Rice with panelist Peter Gluck, Matthew Washington, Karrie Jacobs, Gus Rosado, and CIVIVAS Executive Director Lauren O'Toole

CIVITAS and Community Board 11 have jointly developed zoning recommendations to encourage the following goals in the community: affordable housing opportunities, economic development and job creation, new buildings that are contextual in scale with their surroundings and revitalization of Park Avenue. The rezoning study area includes Madison, Park and Lexington Avenues between 115th and 132nd Streets. The area has not been rezoned in its entirety in over 50 years. The next step for the rezoning recommendations is adoption by the NYC Department of City Planning. 

To read the complete Winter 2014 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

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