Militant Journalism

Manhattan Borough President rejects rezoning plan after East Harlem protests

After a two-year review process, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer issued a non-binding rejection of the “East Harlem Neighborhood Plan” developed by City Hall. That plan aims to rezone 96 blocks in the neighborhood for new developments that would reach 35 stories, primarily with market-rate apartments that are unaffordable to poor and working-class residents.

In rejecting the rezoning plan outright and without conditions, Gale’s statement meets the demand of neighborhood organizations and long-time residents of El Barrio. But the struggle is far from over, as the plan will now be taken up by the City Planning Commission and then the City Council.

Community members storm the stage during a hearing of Community Board 11, which is an unelected body.

Brewer’s office published a list of reasons for why she “must say no to this proposal.” But what she omitted and downplayed, according to Harlem-based organizer Michaela Warnsley, was “the community’s unanimous rejection of the rezoning plan, and the nonstop pressure that has followed local politicians everywhere they go in the neighborhood.”

In June, community members stormed the stage of the Community Board 11 meeting after it voted “no with conditions” — which all understood to be a backdoor way of saying “yes” to rezoning, provided a few changes were made.

In July, a public meeting held by Brewer to hear concerns was filled with hours of testimonials against rezoning. Not a single person stood up in favor of the City’s plan. Gammy Alvarez, a socialist retail worker, skewered the politicians who give progressive speeches but never deliver: “Everyone needs food, clothes and shelter. Well you’ve let the developers knock down this neighborhood’s grocery stores. Now you’re trying to give them our shelter. What’s next? If you as so-called representatives can’t even guarantee a basic food supply for the people of El Barrio after their speeches about ‘food deserts,’ why should we believe you will protect our places to live?”

At a mayor’s Town Hall meeting on Wednesday, the night Brewer’s announcement was due, Warnsley pointedly asked her to state her position plainly before the whole community. Brewer evaded in front of Mayor De Blasio. For his part, he repeated the same lie that the only way to make more “affordable” units was to vastly expand market-units.

Marina Ortiz of the East Harlem Preservation network responded to Brewer’s announcement: “Hundreds of East Harlem/El Barrio residents have already said NO to the City’s plan to gentrify our neighborhood. Both the Mayor and the Speaker’s rezoning plans are both middle-class housing plans that do not reflect our needs. 20-25% set-asides at 30% Area Median Income ($32,000) still means zero new housing for low-income and homeless people. Upzoning to allow 30-35 story, mostly market-rate buildings will destroy the very fabric of what has historically been an affordable community serving immigrants and low-income people of color.”

Karla Reyes, a PSL member and local schoolteacher, noted that the mayor’s office had carefully managed the timing of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure to ram through rezoning. The final vote is scheduled to come up after the local elections but before the newly elected Councilmembers are seated. Reyes noted, “It is a blatant land grab, and they want to do it when there are no consequences. It is shameful that they would try to decide the fate of East Harlem, with all its unique history and its tens of thousands of working-class residents, during a lame duck session.” This timing also facilitates corruption, Reyes told Liberation. “We can only assume some Councilmembers will be looking to land some major donations, or cushy jobs, from developers on their way out the door when their terms expire.”

A local mural created by the Harlem Art Collective portrays rezoning as a trojan horse for gentrification.

Brewer’s announcement shows that the fight against displacement can be won. But it won’t be won easily. The Mayor, the Democratic Party machine and the big developers are committed to rezoning citywide as a central part of their remaking of the city to serve the affluent. In this process, the people’s voices are being ignored as whole neighborhoods pass into the hands of billionaire landlords. This process, which was in high gear under Bloomberg, has continued under De Blasio but with a “progressive” gloss — new units that are falsely labeled “affordable” and relatively small numbers of truly low-income housing.

In East Harlem, 3,666 additional low-income units are on track to be lost by 2029. Meanwhile long-neglected buildings and barren lots, some of which are under the city’s control, sit empty.

Organizations such as Picture the Homeless, East Harlem Preservation Network, the Movement for Justice en El Barrio, the Justice Center en El Barrio and others have committed to defeating the mayor’s plan. Organizers say that any rezoning of the area must be structured to meet the community’s needs — and that means 100% affordable housing for the existing residents at their current income levels, an expansion of public housing, and no giveaways to slumlords and speculators.

The City Planning Commission’s hearing on East Harlem rezoning is scheduled for Aug. 23 at 10:00 a.m., according to the website City Limits. It will be important to mobilize a strong showing from the neighborhood so those commissioners get the same clear message that Brewer received.

As the city’s politicians reveal themselves more and more to be representatives of big money, people are taking matters into their own hands. Many local organizers will be attending the People’s Congress of Resistance in Sept. 16-17, which promises to truly represent the grassroots’ struggles and will involve housing and tenant groups from around the country.

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