In East Harlem, where low-rise apartments and housing projects define the neighborhood’s landscape, the 500,000-square foot East River Plaza is a deviation. Housing a Costco, a Target and other big-box stores, the shopping center opened in 2009 after a protracted debate.
Now, developers Forest City Ratner and Blumenfeld Development Group want to build three luxury residential high-rises, up to 47 stories high, on the same site, and residents are protesting again. Much of the opposition comes from the neighborhood’s Latino community and its community groups. The area has been a favored home for Mexican immigrants — who have recently become the city’s fastest-growing immigrant group — because of its affordable rents and the widespread use of Spanish.
East Harlem remains one of Manhattan’s most affordable neighborhoods. According to New York University’s Furman Center, close to two-thirds of the area’s apartments rent for less than $1,000 a month; citywide, only a little more than a third of all apartments are in that category.
That’s prompted groups like East Harlem nonprofit NERVE (the acronym for Nuevo El Barrio Para La Rehabilitación de La Vivienda Y La Economia) to take a lead in opposing the luxury apartment proposal. Roger Hernandez, a second-generation resident of East Harlem and NERVE member, said, “We’ve already seen people getting pushed out of their neighborhood elsewhere.”
“The Lower East Side got wiped out of its Hispanic population, the West Side area around Lincoln Center, which was predominantly Hispanic for decades, got wiped out.”
In many East Harlem stores and restaurants, the use of Spanish is ubiquitous, and residents have come to depend on one another as they adapt to life in New York and the United States. This facet is especially critical to Mexican immigrants to the city; U.S. Census figures show that 83 percent of Mexican immigrants in New York City have difficulty understanding English.
“This neighborhood is special. It’s low density row houses that don’t go more than five stories,” Hernandez said. “Most of them are just three-story walk-ups, it’s a cobblestone village. Fifty-story towers are way out of context.”
What happens to the East Harlem proposal will be closely watched in other neighborhoods, as a litmus test for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to expand affordable housing. Many hope the mayor will increase the percentage of affordable units that the city requires developers to include in any new construction.
But some in the community, like Marina Ortiz, the founder of East Harlem Preservation, which works to preserve the neighborhood’s Latino culture, say they will oppose the project no matter how many low-income units it holds. “I’m not going to compromise and say, ‘we just want want 50 percent,’” Ortiz said.
Ortiz proposes instead that East Harlem expand its affordable housing stock by building smaller developments on existing vacant lots. The massive towers proposed at East River Plaza are just too much, she said.
“There’s no way it can support that many people without having a devastating impact.”
Aware of some of these concerns, Forest City Ratner and Blumenfeld speak cautiously about the unfolding opposition. “We are very early in the planning process,” said a spokesman for the project, “but have already made a significant effort to engage the local community and get feedback before the official review process begins.”
The developers are seeking several zoning amendments to allow them to exceed height minimums and rezone the area from commercial to residential. If those amendments are not approved though, the project cannot move forward.
“Absolutely we can still stop this from being built,” said Ortiz. “We know there are all sorts of variances the city needs to accept.”
And by pressuring the city to deny the developers’ zoning requests, neighborhood organizations and activists hope to halt the development before construction even begins.
Still, other neighborhood residents see the development as a fait accompli. Elbert Fuller has lived in the same apartment for 20 years, one block away from the proposed towers, and believes the neighborhood eventually is going to transform like the rest of Manhattan.
“We’re going to have all these towers up here, but even though the city’s changing, this neighborhood’s still not ready,” Fuller says. “This is a family community, not like downtown. Most people know each other; we look out for one another. I don’t think we could do that with those towers.”