|The Manhattan Institutes|
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the citys planning, housing, and development
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 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 securesomething 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."
A CORNUCOPIA OF TRANSPORTATION
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 decisionsincluding the redevelopment, in the 1950s, of a section of 125th Street west of Convent Avenue into superblocks of housing projectshave 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.
A SUSPICIOUS PUBLIC
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 neighborhoodsuch as the Harlem Vintage Wine Store, the Moca Lounge, Patisserie des Ambassades, Barbara's Flowers, the Tribal Spears Gallery, and many othersdemonstrate the effectiveness of the city's previous rezoning and development policies.
Yet even these excellent retail outlets lack sufficient walk-in traffic and, instead, must rely on destination shoppers. Harlem needs more residents and workersboth 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.
City Planning is proposing to rezone an icon, and feelings are running high. But the basic principlesmixed use and increased densityare exactly what 125th Street needs.
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