ANALYSIS: Developer Blasts Harlem Pol Over Rejecting Housing, As He Plans Truck Depot Instead
A developer wanted to build housing, affordable units and public space, but was turned down, so now he’s making housing … for trucks. Is there a greater symbol of New York’s dysfunction?
That’s how real-estate bigwig Bruce Teitelbaum would spin it — he’s the developer who now says he’ll build a truck depot in Harlem because the local council member opposed his request to rezone a lot at W. 145th Street and Lenox Avenue so he could build two 32-story buildings comprising more than 900 units of housing, retail space, and a Museum of Civil Rights (in partnership with Rev. Al Sharpton). And according to the developer, it also would have included new open space and better street design for safety.
Teitelbaum’s company, RPG, initiated plans in 2021 to rezone the L-shaped plot for his project, One45, because the 1961 citywide zoning code allows only “automative and other heavy commercial services” on the site.
Harlem Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan has opposed the development from her entry to the Council in January 2022, forcing Teitelbaum to withdraw One45 in favor of the truck depot — the last thing needed in a neighborhood already overburdened by trucks, pollution, and deadly streets, critics charge. The new truck depot proposal was first reported by Patch earlier this month.
Pro-housing activists wish it hadn’t come to this.
“This is a particularly clear example of what happens when politicians prioritize opposing every zoning change over their constituents’ needs,” said Logan Phares, the political director of Open New York. “New York’s people, not its vehicles, urgently need a roof over their heads. Amid climate change’s recent effect on the five boroughs, as well as a rise in homelessness and traffic deaths, it’s disappointing to see that the Council member took the route that will lead to more trucks on the road rather than more residents with a place to sleep at night.”
Teitelbaum told Streetsblog that as part of the rezoning he also would have addressed the congestion and pollution concerns in the area, which has a high rate of child hospitalizations associated with pollution-induced asthma. According to city health data, that section of Harlem adjacent to the 145th Street bridge to the Bronx had an annual rate of 39.2 per 100,000 children, more than double the citywide average.
“The strip along 145th Street … is terribly congested,” said Teitelbaum, once an aide to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “We had a mitigation plan in place that would have been part of the development, but that was rejected. I’m mindful obviously of pollution and congestion because we tried to address them, but those were rejected.”
It’s unclear exactly what that “mitigation plan” would have looked like. Documents filed with the Department of City Planning don’t explicitly outline any plans to address street safety beyond installing more curb cuts; Teitelbaum did not elaborate further, and his environmental impact statement said that “an evaluation of vehicular and pedestrian safety at these locations is unwarranted.”
Teitelbaum refused to accept any blame whatsoever for resigning to putting a truck depot on the same site he had wanted to build housing, reiterating that he tried to do the right thing.
“It’s unfair to ask me whether or not I will do things I already proposed to do, but was told, ‘No, thank you,'” he said. “We spent six years trying to redevelop this site. … I presented a plan that would have been transformational. So I think you’re asking the wrong question,” suggesting that Jordan should be asked, “Before you opposed this, didn’t you think of the consequences?”
Well there we have it. More traffic, pollution, noise and death for Harlem, instead of housing. https://t.co/dBcd5C4EwT
— Pedro ????? (@_pjrt) September 9, 2022
After Sharpton pulled his support — and the museum — back in May, Teitelbaum said he would increase the units from about 850 to 917, and the below-market-rate units from about 270 to half, far more than is required by the city. Sharpton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It was not enough for the first-time legislator, who said she promised to vote the project down because it “directly encourages and increases the rate of gentrification” and wrote in a Medium post that it “would stand at 100 feet taller than the current tallest building in the area,” putting an “astronomical strain” on a community that is already “undergoing structural changes and is incredibly congested.”
New plan was submitted literally on Friday, 0 business days before the vote. pic.twitter.com/7RoLxGXkHj
— Kristin Richardson Jordan (KRJ) (@Kristin4Harlem) May 29, 2022
Teitelbaum doesn’t yet know what else he will build on the L-shaped lot, which sits above the 145th Street 3 train station and currently includes a gas station, a vacant lot, a restaurant, and headquarters for Sharpton’s National Action Network — which would have gotten a replacement in the new towers. But he told Streetsblog that the truck depot, which will basically be rental space for any type of truck, including school buses, will take up only a portion of the 70,000-square-foot site, sitting on top of what’s now a vacant lot that was previously used as a gas station.
Teitelbaum says he’s aware of all of the backlash following the announcement of his plans for the truck depot, but that he doesn’t see himself at fault. He tried to do good, he said, but was stopped by the community board, council member, and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who voted down the project, but then changed his tune once Teitelbaum added more affordable units. The City Planning Commission voted in favor.
And in addition to the hundreds of units of housing, retail and community space One45 would have provided, Teitelbaum said as part of the rezoning he also would have reconstructed the playground within Brigadier General Charles Young Playground and redesigned the street — a life-saving necessity considering that since 2018, there have been 488 reported crashes on just 2,000 feet of W. 145th Street between Lenox Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, causing two pedestrian fatalities and 190 injuries, according to Crash Mapper. Though exactly what his plans were for a street redesign remain unclear, and he declined to comment further.
“They’re angry, I don’t blame them,” he said of critics of the new plan for a truck depot. “The original proposal would have completely rebuilt that street with the highest level of resiliency and sustainability, open spaces for the public. It was all there in the plan.”
Do we need to build more housing? 1000%.
Did the developer have to build a truck depot of all things? Absolutely not.
99% of the people commenting on this are white people bashing a Black woman – check yourselves. The developer’s building of the depot is shameful as well. https://t.co/YLswyW09qc
— Chi Ossé (@OsseChi) September 10, 2022
Jordan said plans for a truck depot were never discussed in multiple meetings she’s had with the developers since the application was pulled. She said she remains “cautious though hopeful for a better alternative.” But like Teitelbaum, she similarly absolved herself of any wrongdoing, putting the blame on her predecessors.
“This truck depot is frankly news to me, although given the emphasis on profit over people I am, unfortunately, not surprised,” she said in an e-mail to Streetsblog. “I am sad to hear that the zoning done under previous local leadership even allows for this in our community which already has such high asthma rates.”
But it’s unclear which leadership was specifically to blame, given that the One45 development site has been zoned the same as it has been since 1961, said a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning.
And the sorry end to Harlem’s One45, as some advocates see it, is certainly not the first time new housing was held hostage by parochial concerns over height or displacement thanks to the rejection of a rezoning proposal by a local pol.
In 2016, then-Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer opposed a rezoning application in order to erect an affordable housing complex in Sunnyside on the site of what was then a parking lot. The site remained as is — a large parking lot — until last year when the developers came back to the table and put forward a new application to build affordable housing. Van Bramer ultimately supported the second iteration, citing more affordability.
Housing advocates fear a fate similar to One45 is in store for the controversial Bruckner Boulevard rezoning currently going through the city’s lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The rezoning is backed by Mayor Adams, but opposed by the area’s local Council member, Marjorie Velázquez. The plan call for 349 units of housing, nearly half of which will be set aside for low-and-middle-income tenants.
And perhaps one of the most well-known examples is what happened at the former Long Island College Hospital site, when then-Council Member Brad Lander rejected a rezoning proposal there to allow for below-market-rate housing, a new school, and more green space, instead paving the way for developer Fortis Property Group to build only what was allowed under current zoning laws: luxury towers and a new medical facility. Then-Mayor de Blasio had supported the rezoning.