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125th Street: Rezoning an Icon

Julia Vitullo-Martin, February 2008

Few streets in New York carry as many of a community's dreams and memories as Harlem's 125th Street. Yet its status as the most famous African-American (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) commercial corridor in the world can work as a burden as well as an asset. Despite recent successes 125th Street's comeback is far from secure—something the Bloomberg administration is trying to fix via an extensive rezoning it has proposed, which is intended to encourage mixed-use development while protecting the existing scale of occupied housing, particularly in brownstone areas. (The administration defines the corridor as bounded by 124th and 126th Streets, Second Avenue to the east and Broadway to the west.)

The long-time home of such venerated institutions as the Apollo Theater and the Studio Museum, 125th Street has in the last few years attracted national chain stores such as Marshall's and HMV as well as substantial investment from Magic Johnson Enterprises. Some beguiling restaurants, boutiques, and specialty shops have opened on the main street as well as along offshoots. Others have closed, leaving empty storefronts and pockmarked blocks. Entrepreneur Michael Eberstadt, who owns the thriving Slice of Harlem pizzeria on 125th Street, shut down his elegant Bayou restaurant last year. "We developed a very loyal local clientele," he says. "There just weren't enough of them."

In theory, the 125th Street corridor should have plenty of people walking its streets. After all, it has some of the best public transportation in the city. On the East Side, the Harlem-125th Street station at (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) Park Avenue, familiar from its many movie appearances, is served by Metro-Northís Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven lines as well as the subway's 4, 5, and 6 Lexington Avenue lines. The M60 bus to LaGuardia Airport stops there, as do the M100, M101, and Bx15 buses. On the West Side, the 125th Street station at Broadway is served by the 7th Avenue IRT's 1 line. The 2 and 3 stop at Lenox Avenue, and the A, B, C, and D at St. Nicholas Avenue. What's more, 125th Street is bounded by major highways—the Henry Hudson Parkway on the West and the FDR Drive on the East, where it jogs into the Triborough Bridge.

But the expected crowds of pedestrians seldom materialize, even though 125th Street was designed for density. Over the decades a series of poor public policy decisions—including the redevelopment, in the 1950s, of a section of 125th Street west of Convent Avenue into superblocks of housing projects—have badly curtailed its promise. City Planning chair Amanda Burden is right when she says that though 125th Street is one of the most renowned streets in the world it is just not the premiere street it once was. Because private investment has been hamstrung by the inflexible, outmoded zoning of 1961, 125th Street has declined as a commercial corridor. With its proposed rezoning the Bloomberg administration hopes to stimulate new investment that will transform the street into a regional business district hosting new arts, entertainment, and retail presences.

At a Jan. 30 public hearing, held on the City College campus ten blocks north of 125th Street, the rezoning proposals met with substantial support from (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) business, arts groups, and labor interests—and opposition from many others, including the chair of Central Harlem's community board, Franc Perry. Perry argued against any residential development on 125th Street, saying it would drive out small retail businesses.

In fact, residential development would do the opposite by supplying businesses with customers. And it would do that by providing the mix of "work stirred along with dwellings" advocated by planner Jane Jacobs in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." It's that mix that has helped rejuvenate so many New York neighborhoods.

When a commissioner pressed Perry on his opposition to all residential development, for any income level, cries of "No compromise" went up among audience members. But why?

Just south of 125th Street, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the mix of residential development and ground-floor retail has demonstrated the effectiveness of Jacobs-favored varieties of development. Dazzling enterprises that would be welcome in any neighborhood—such as the Harlem Vintage Wine Store, the Moca Lounge, Patisserie des Ambassades, Barbara's Flowers, the Tribal Spears Gallery, and many others—demonstrate the effectiveness of the city's previous rezoning and development policies.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Yet even these excellent retail outlets lack sufficient walk-in traffic and, instead, must rely on destination shoppers. Harlem needs more residents and workers—both of which the proposed rezoning hopes to bring. Yet far from permitting too much new development, as some activists charge, the rezoning (the first since 1961) is too restrictive, imposing height limits of 160 feet on most of 125th Street, keyed to the Hotel Theresa, and thus perhaps undermining the cityís stated intention of establishing 125th as a media center. Greater height and bulk would be allowed near the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building, but not enough, testified developer Derek Johnson. His company, Integrated Holdings, is partnering with Vornado Realty to build Harlem Park, the neighborhood's first Class A office building in at least 40 years. But, he said, the rezoning would "preclude" attracting the major media tenants, including a new sports network, that his company had lined up. Under the previous zoning, his tower could have reached 478 feet, delivering spectacular views. In the new proposal, he said, "The commission has settled on 290 feet, far lower than we need. If you're trying to grow and develop a diversified economy in Harlem, then I don't see how you can argue against the commercial development we're proposing, which is going to bring to the neighborhood myriad opportunities that are career-building and skill-developing."

Some of these details will be negotiated over the next few months as the City Planning Commission moves through its Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

City Planning is proposing to rezone an icon, and feelings are running high. But the basic principles—mixed use and increased density—are exactly what 125th Street needs.

City Planning certified the 125th Street rezoning on Oct. 1, 2007, thereby officially beginning the seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). On Dec. 5, Community Boards 9 and 11 issued conditional approvals of the rezoning, while CB 10 issued a conditional disapproval, objecting to the projected development of 2,600 units of luxury housing and the reputed displacement of businesses and low-income households. On Jan. 9, 2008, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer disapproved. The City Planning Commission must issue its formal ULURP review by March 10, after which the City Council has 50 days to review and decide. The City Councilís decision will be final unless the mayor chooses to veto the council's action within five days of the vote. Within 10 days of a veto, the council can override with a two-thirds vote.


February 2008
Department of City Planning 125th Street Overview
City's Sweeping Rezoning Plan Has Many in Harlem Concerned
Manhattanville Expansion Raises Questions about Aesthetics
New York Times City Room: Should All of 125th Street Be Declared Historic?
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