Planning East Harlem

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WXY and Hester Street Collaborative facilitate local plan.

BRIAN GODFREY / FLICKR

In the coming years, wide swaths of New York will land on the city’s drawing board for comprehensive rezoning. In September 2015, the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) released the East New York Community Plan. The plan, now in its public comment period, calls for increased density and affordable housing via mandatory inclusionary zoning in a largely low-income Brooklyn neighborhood. A city initiative, the planning process was organized by the DCP with input from local groups.

In East Harlem, however, residents, community groups, and facilitators flipped the script. Stakeholders are collecting residents’ feedback on their neighborhood for the DCP’s input. The group’s project, the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, began in May 2015 and targets the area governed by Community Board 11 (CB 11). The project’s meticulous approach to community-based planning has the potential to impact neighborhood planning citywide.

The project partners are city council speaker (and area representative) Melissa Mark-Viverito, CB 11, the Manhattan borough president’s office, and social justice advocacy group Community Voices Heard. New York’s WXY Studio and Hester Street Collaborative are facilitating the development of a draft of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. Other participating organizations include a charter school, labor unions, a tenants’ association, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), and El Museo del Barrio. These groups lead steering committees that help draft and approve recommendations.

To all parties, planning goes beyond zoning to encompass the individual and social context. Adam Lubinsky, WXY’s managing principal, emphasizes that the planning is entirely community driven, and is not about showcasing the vision of a particular designer or firm. So far, hundreds of residents have participated in the process. Ultimately, Lubinsky hopes that East Harlemites “put together key principles and ideas so city planning will look at that and understand that” for the official zoning ultimately adopted by the DCP.

The process starts with a series of community visioning workshops for residents to voice what they love and what they would change in East Harlem. Workshops include a discussion of policies that affect the neighborhood. A session on zoning and land use, for example, uses participatory visioning strategies that “get people thinking about the nature of the area,” said Lubinsky.

Ideas from the workshops are taken up by 11 subgroups, each facilitated by a different stakeholder. Topics include open space and environment, culture, education, childcare, housing preservation, affordable housing, NYCHA, economic and workforce development, senior citizens, health and safety, and transportation. A proposal from a committee headed by the NYRP, for example, suggests that “developers [should] provide green infrastructure within and/or adjacent to new developments” to fortify East Harlem against “threats from climate change.”

The subgroups create proposals that are refined in a public comment period. The final plan will be presented in early 2016 to the DCP to inform the final neighborhood rezoning.

Will WXY and Hester Street be involved in the design? Hopefully, Lubinsky states, the “capacity-building process is self-perpetuating. I don’t know if they’ll need us.”

Audrey Wachs