Levine and Brewer: Follow-up Request to City Planning to Rezone Morningside Heights — MHCC Issues Letter of Support

 Marisa Lago, Director Department of City Planning 120 Broadway New York, NY 10027 

Dear Chair Lago, 

We would first like to thank you and your team for joining us on the Dec 21 walking tour of Morningside Heights. We hope that the tour left you with the impression that Morningside Heights is a unique neighborhood on the brink of major transformation. 

Current Conditions 

We believe that new development in Morningside Heights is necessary and inevitable but, as previously expressed by our offices, a comprehensive neighborhood study is necessary to ensure that new development is consistent with the distinctive character of this neighborhood. Recent large developments have resulted in buildings that are both out of scale with the surrounding context, and contain no affordable housing. Meanwhile, the local community continues to struggle with a shortage of affordable housing and increasing rent-burden. 

The areas surrounding Morningside Heights to the north, south and east, have all been rezoned in recent years to create contextual districts that encourage active street fronts, appropriately scaled buildings, and improvements to the quality of the built environment. However, Morningside Heights is the lone neighborhood that still adheres to the mid-century planning principals of “towers in a park” and “height factor”. 

Rezoning Framework 

We understand that the Department of City Planning (DCP) has prioritized the mapping of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) in neighborhood studies. We share the goal of creating affordable housing. During previous discussions, your office has expressed concern about the limited potential for development in Morningside Heights. In response, we highlighted a number of “soft sites” during our tour that we believe have significant potential for affordable housing development. 

Working with the Morningside Heights Community Coalition (MHCC) and building on recommendations from the local community board, we analyzed potential soft sites and produced a preliminary zoning framework with increases in density that prioritize MIH unit production. Our preliminary analysis results in the creation of between 1,100 and 1,700 new units in the neighborhood, of which hundreds would be affordable per MIH requirements. 

In addition to this significant affordable housing production, we believe that a Morningside Heights rezoning can address other neighborhood planning concerns, including: expanding commercial corridor vitality, reassessing parking requirements, and incorporating MTA accessibility improvements into new developments. 

We appreciate that a neighborhood rezoning would involve a commitment of resources from your office and particularly DCP’s Manhattan office. However, it is our belief that the considerable effort of MHCC and other stakeholders as well as the continued support of our offices will result in a plan that helps us collectively shape the future of Morningside Heights. 

We look forward to working with your office on the next steps of a neighborhood study and rezoning plan. 

Sincerely, Mark Levine Council Member, 7th District  Gale Brewer 

Manhattan Borough President 



Marisa Lago, Director March 21, 2019

Department of City Planning

120 Broadway

New York, NY 10271

Dear Chair Lago:

We are writing in support of our elected officials, Councilmember Mark Levine and Manhattan Boro President Gale Brewer, as to their recent letter requesting that the Department of City Planning (DCP) partner with our local community stakeholders to launch a neighborhood study with the goal of contextually rezoning the Morningside Heights neighborhood. We believe that a carefully crafted re-zoning plan will increase necessary density to generate hundreds of affordable units, reduce tenant displacement, and provide balance to years of gentrification in Morningside Heights.

As we highlighted in our neighborhood “walk around” last December, the overdevelopment that has already occurred, combined with the flood of ongoing and planned new luxury high-rises, points to both the past and the potential future “missed opportunities” for providing affordable housing under MIH. Here are examples:

• In 2003, St. John the Divine in consultation with the city’s Landmarks PreservationCommission, identified two development sites that were both offered to developers under 99-year leases. In 2008, AvalonBay communities developed the Avalon Morningside with 295 rental units, only 20% of which are designated “affordable.” The second site, The Enclave, has 428 units, with only 87 units designated “affordable.”

• Nearby, St. Luke’s Hospital sold 1080 Amsterdam Avenue (20 stories) in 2015 for $29.1 million. The building had provided affordable housing to the hospital staff before conversion to all luxury housing (now called The Stonehenge). None of the 96 units offered are affordable.

• A few blocks over, on 30 Morningside Drive, the developer Delshah paid $111.5 million to Mount Sinai/St. Luke’s for five hospital buildings (two of which are landmarked) to be converted to 205 all-luxury rentals, and 0 affordable units. Delshah is seeking to receive federal 20% historic preservation tax credits, totaling over $20 million, for the development costs in return for maintaining the landmark facades.

• Jewish Theological Seminary at 3080 Broadway sold a parcel of land to the developer Savanna which is building a 250,000 square-foot luxury condominium 32-story structure, The Vandewater, at 543 W. 122nd Street. Savanna paid $77 million for the land, and “air rights.” 183 market rate condos are being offered, starting at around $1 Million, up to $6 Million. Affordable units: 0

• Existing rental buildings are being sold or renovated as luxury units, displacing long-time residents. Three contiguous buildings, 3143-3149 Broadway, were on the market for $48 million, with average rents of $3000 per unit. As part of their large real estate deal, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) sold 415 W. 120th Street, a seven-story 1910 student residence, built of Harvard brick and Indiana limestone, that was demolished to make way for a 15-story luxury rental to be marketed to affluent students by the developer, Collegium. JTS also sold 3060 Broadway, a seven-story student dormitory with several ground-floor small businesses (barber shop, copy shop, coffee shop, deli) to eventually be converted to market rate housing by Coltown Properties. All these deals will have resulted in either the displacement of long-time rent stabilized tenants, or the creation of luxury units. All the current small businesses are likely to be displaced. And additional mega luxury projects are planned or underway that could possibly provide affordable units under a re-zoned Morningside Heights:

• Union Theological Seminary, located between 120th and 122nd Street and Broadway, sold 350,000 square feet of “air rights,” along with a parcel on its campus, for over $100 million to developers L+M and LendLease. A 42-story all luxury condo tower is set to break ground in October. 170 market rate condos are currently planned, and 0 affordable units.

• The Riverside Church is rumored to be in active discussions with developers to sell its abundant “air rights” and a parcel of its non-landmarked site. We fear the Church will mimic the luxury development plans of Union Theological Seminary, its sister institution across Claremont Avenue. We are hoping that the Church will be open to discussing alternative plans, and will consider input from the Morningside community.

• Additionally, The Riverside Church recently purchased seven-story McGiffert Hall from Union Theological Seminary for $47 million. McGiffert currently has 80 small apartment units housing UTS administration and other employees. It has been learned that McGiffert will continue to be occupied by UTS for at least three years or until the 42-story luxury condo tower underway on the UTS campus is open for occupancy. Riverside Church’s plans for the site are unknown to the public, though there are internal advocates for some form of affordable or supportive housing at McGiffert. Recently completed new and renovated housing, and projects already underway or in active planning, such as The Vandewater, and UTS towers site, will total an estimated 1,700 apartments, with only a small percentage affordable (located in The Enclave and The Avalon).

As we observed together on the “walk around,” Morningside Heights offers multiple additional sites that are ripe for large, high-density projects that could offer affordable housing under a revised zoning plan, including the Southeast and Southwest corners of 125th Street and Broadway; low-rise, sparsely occupied commercial spaces; and several large parking areas scattered through the area.

Morningside Heights has already been uniquely targeted by developers taking advantage of outdated zoning regulations that enable unfettered acquisition of “air rights” and “as-of-right” construction — without offering affordable housing. We urge City Planning to take action as soon as possible to promote future opportunities for affordable housing before they are gone forever.


Robert Stern



Laura Friedman

MHCC – President


CC: Councilmember Mark Levine, Manhattan Boro President Gale Brewer

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