Morningside Heights Fights Back!
The past few months have been eventful ones for the Morningside Heights Community Coalition, as we work to fight against overdevelopment, for affordable housing, and to ensure that workers and community members are safe around construction sites
On April 30, over 120 community residents, supporters from New York City construction unions and elected officials rallied on a chilly Spring afternoon in front of Jewish Theological Seminary to protest unrestricted and unaccountable overdevelopment in Morningside Heights. Protesters held signs, sang songs, chanted, and listened to speeches by MHCC President Laura Friedman, citywide and local elected officials, and a representative of Laborers Local 79. A spirited delegation marched from Morningside Gardens to the rally site. Elected officials who spoke were Public Advocate Letitia James, State Senator Brian Benjamin, Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. They called for rezoning of our neighborhood to provide for contextual development and affordable housing, as well as the use of union labor in the upcoming construction projects, because union workers receive better pay and working conditions and union projects are safer for people in the surrounding community.
There were also calls for institutions and developers to contribute to a Community Benefits Agreement, which would provide some support to neighborhood residents impacted by the numerous luxury developments. The demonstration, which, despite the prohibition of amplified sound, could be heard for blocks, made an impression on the institutions and helped to strengthen our coalition as we strive to give a voice to our community in the development that threatens to change its character.
To see more about the protest rally, go to our YouTube Channel:
MHCC produced a report, Morningside Speaks!, available here, which summarizes the dialogue at our January 25 community workshop, attended by over 150 community members and representatives of institutions.
Among the conclusions: Morningside wants development that fits into our community’s unique architectural and historical fabric, affordable housing, and contributions to city services from developers coming into the community and the institutions profiting from that development.
Meetings and Correspondence with Developers
Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). JTS is just beginning construction of its “21st Century Campus,” which includes an impressive new library and dormitories. While MHCC welcomes the new campus, we strongly object to the use of Gilbane, a building contractor with a recent history of safety violations. Gilbane employs non-union labor and the subcontractors it uses have shaky safety records. JTS has received strong opposition to the use of Gilbane from unions, community supporters, some JTS students and alumni, and some local rabbis.
JTS has funded its campus with a lucrative sale of three properties, including air rights, to developers who plan to build market-rate housing with no provision for affordable housing. JTS, in meetings with MHCC, has washed its hands of any responsibility for the consequences of these real estate sales. MHCC will continue its efforts to get JTS both to acknowledge that its transactions have potentially harmful consequences for our community and that it has a responsibility to give back to the community. MHCC will also form a Health-Safety committee to work with JTS and hold it accountable for safety in the construction process. We will take similar steps with the other developers in projects where construction is imminent (Orbach and Savanna).
Savanna Tower: On 122nd Street, between Amsterdam and Broadway, one of the 3 sites purchased from JTS, Savanna, a large real estate firm, plans to build a 32 story, 343 foot high building, construction to begin August-October 2017, with 6 months of heavier excavation work, a finished exterior in 18 months, the whole building in about 30 months. Demolition on the site was completed in the Fall. When the building is finished, it will contain luxury condos, which Savanna expects will sell at prices ranging from $2-5 million. MHCC has met with Savanna and expressed our opposition to the height and design of the tower, the absence of affordable housing, and the use of nonunion labor. Savanna has been presented with the opportunity to enter into an agreement providing benefits to the community. Savanna has promised to provide ongoing information on construction planning to the community, as well as to receive input from MHCC on construction safety issues.
411-5 W 120th St (a second site purchased from JTS): Demolition of the existing building is almost complete. Orbach Group (Lighthouse Properties) plans to build a luxury rental building of 15 stories. Orbach is a large developer owned by a New Jersey-based billionaire with a record of harassing tenants. MHCC has met with Orbach and expressed concern about numerous safety violations reported by MHCC members in neighboring buildings. We also object to the absence of affordable housing and to the height of the building on a block consisting of six story buildings.
Union Theological Seminary (UTS) Site—A developer is in negotiations with UTS to build a tower “no higher than the steeple at Riverside Church.” UTS is committed to a building made of the same material as the other buildings on its campus. One-third of the apartments in the new building will be devoted to UTS offices and housing, the remainder luxury condos. UTS has said it will commit funding for affordable housing “in the community,” a commitment welcomed by MHCC. They are committed to an ongoing dialogue with the coalition, which will continue to seek fewer stories in the building and will also seek to ensure that the affordable housing be located in the Morningside Heights community.
St. Luke’s Site (30 Morningside Drive)—MHCC has also had discussions with Delshah, the developer of a building on Morningside Drive, on the site of four former pavilions of St. Luke’s Hospital. This building will consist of luxury rentals, but will preserve the historical façade of the old building, including two that the City landmarked in 2002, for which they expect to receive $20 million in federal and state tax credits. We will continue our discussion with Delshah concerning construction safety issues, affordable housing and contributions to a Community Benefit Agreement.
VICTORY: Morningside Heights Historic District
On May 20 the City Council officially approved the Morningside Heights Historic District in the lower half of Morningside Heights. This is a great victory for our community and reflects over twenty years of persistent advocacy by the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee (MHHDC), MHCC’s parent organization, and support from elected officials, especially Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, Councilmember Mark Levine and Representative Jerold Nadler. The next project for MHHDC will be extending the historic district to the northern half of the neighborhood.
While the Historic District is a great victory, as approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission will be required before certain changes can be made to buildings within the district, it does not by any means eliminate the need for rezoning, a top priority for MHCC. Rezoning, if successful, will limit the height of new buildings and mandate affordable housing as part of new construction.
The City is listening to the community’s demand for rezoning to deal with development issues on a long-term basis. We are particularly concerned with putting some limitations on the height and context of development in our “height factor” zoning district, which does not have a height limit like “contextual” zoning districts.
We held a second meeting with the City Planning Department in the Spring and have followed up with correspondence to higher officials in the Department. When pressed with a question regarding “as-of-right” zoning in Morningside Heights during the June 3rd West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club Town Hall, Mayor De Blasio directed us to schedule a meeting with City Planning Chair Marisa Lago, which will occur during the Summer.
The City administration favors upzoning (increasing residential capacity) to create opportunities for new affordable housing through Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, a recent City law which requires that a percentage of new development in rezoned areas be set aside for “affordable housing.” Affordable housing is a top priority of the MHCC, so we will hopefully discover a way to meet both our and the City’s priorities.