Raft of Legislation

Despite almost all the talk at City Hall yesterday being dedicated to the electoral aspirations of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the City Council still managed to pass an important piece of legislation that bolsters waterfront planning efforts, along with two other new laws that create a mixed-use development in Harlem and protect a small slice of affordable housing in Chelsea.

From a planning standpoint, the first piece of legislation is the most impressive. It calls for the creation of a comprehensive waterfront plan, prepared by the Department of City Planning each decade, beginning in 2010. Back when New York’s waterfront was largely dedicated to commercial uses, it, along with the entire harbor, was overseen by the New York-New Jersey Port and Harbor Commission. Now, with the city finally returning to the waterfront with parks, projects, and follies, some two dozen agencies have taken a stake.

The key is making sure the various uses and interests on the waterfront work in concert, not opposition. “With the introduction of this legislation today, we will ensure that New York City never turns its back on the waterfront,” Christine Quinn, the council speaker, said at a press conference. “A comprehensive plan provided to the city every ten years will allow us to best assess the different ways our waterfronts can be used for leisure, employment, and industry.”

Under the legislation [text], which passed unanimously 51-0, the city’s planners must consult with affected local, state, and federal agencies, as well as the public, about their waterfront needs and how resources should be allocated to address them. For groups like the Waterfront Alliance (formerly the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance), it is an important opportunity to finally weigh in on issues that might otherwise be ignored. “One thing near and dear to our heart is a working waterfront,” Roland Lewis, the group’s president, said.

While waterfront access, parks, and development are important, Lewis said, the waterfront’s historic use cannot be ignored. As the economy struggles, the better-paying work traditionally offered near, on, and in the water must be preserved, and with a comprehensive plan in place, it will be easier for such jobs to thrive without impinging on their neighbors. And vice versa. “Nothing against IKEA,” Lewis said, “but you can put an IKEA almost anywhere. You can only do dock work on the docks.” Lewis also hopes it will spread across the river to New Jersey and up the Hudson to “sister cities,” creating “a truly comprehensive plan.”

The council also endorsed a rezoning plan for yet another piece of 125th Street in East Harlem that will create a 1.7 million-square-foot, mixed-use project on three vacant city-owned parcels. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the local representative, said it was a landmark project not only in its scope, but also because the community rejected a developer three years ago, leading the city to take the incredibly rare step of rescinding its development contract. “Since then, we have worked hard with the community to come up with a satisfactory plan, something we have now achieved,” she said.

Covering an area between 125th and 127th streets, from 2nd to 3rd avenues, the rezoning calls for a 30,000-square-foot cultural space, 850 apartment units (600 of which are affordable), a 98,000-square-foot hotel, and 250,000 square feet of office space. Also included are 500,000 square feet of retail space with an emphasis on local businesses, and a mid-block public plaza at the center of the complex.

The council also passed a bill [text] modifying the J-51 tax benefit to include Penn South, a Chelsea co-op that was at risk of losing the benefit due to rising assessment values amid skyrocketing prices in the neighborhood. “By including Penn South in the J-51 program, we are taking the important step of preserving a community that is and will remain a source of affordable housing for thousands of residents,” Quinn said.

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