The City Council’s zoning committee voted unanimously Wednesday against a proposal that would have massively expanded Lenox Terrace, a famed Harlem apartment complex. The vote came as a victory for tenants and community members, who have been fighting the rezoning ever since it entered the city’s public review process last August.
“This is a really important day for us,” Lenn Shebar, president of the Lenox Terrace Association for Concerned Tenants, told NY City Lens. “We’re a small tenants’ association, with a small budget. And yet we’ve been able to come together and beat the goliath.”
The version of the project proposed by developers in August would have added five 28-story luxury towers and two floors of retail space to the existing six building complex. Construction at such a scale required commercial rezoning, which must be approved by the City Council.
At public meetings throughout the fall, tenants argued the expansion would fundamentally alter the character of the historic complex, bringing in a wave of higher income residents and turn it into a busy shopping destination. Of the 1,600 new apartments, 400 would have been reserved for affordable housing.
After Community Board 10 and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer argued against the rezoning, the Olnick Organization, which owns Lenox Terrace, proposed a slightly scaled down version of the project. But it was “too little too late,” according to Shebar, the tenants’ association president. “They resisted doing substantial reductions to the project.”
Throughout the process, Olnick offered a number of sweeteners to existing tenants so that they would go along with the expansion. Among these were access to amenities like gyms and yoga studios in new buildings, and free renovations of kitchens and bathroom in the original ones. The tenants’ association argued that a lot of these were basic maintenance issues that Olnick has been neglecting and should be addressed irrespective of any new construction.
The fight isn’t necessarily over. Now, tenants are wary Olnick will build “as of right,” meaning they will build at the scale allowed under the current zoning, without any benefits to existing residents and with no affordable housing.
“We have been pursuing options that require public approval rather than simply using the half-million square feet of development now allowed on the site because we believed that achieving these benefits was important to our residents and the community,” Seth Schochet, the president of Olnick, said in a statement. “None would be attained without a rezoning.”
Olnick has already put out a proposal of what an “as of right” project would look like – four towers instead of five, and of slightly lower height. It would not be the first time a developer in the city took this route. In 2016, Fortis Property Group failed to acquire the rezoning required for a housing development project in Long Island, and went on to build a smaller, entirely market-rate development instead. The same is currently happening in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. Developer JEMB Realty is struggling to get support to rezone for a residential tower which would include some affordable housing, and might build a hotel in its place.
Olnick’ s relationship with renters has long been fraught. In 2010, tenants sued the company in a class action lawsuit, accusing Olnick of illegally raising rents on rent-stabilized apartments. Olnick settled the suit last year, agreeing to pay the tenants $2.9 million.
“If I was them, I would take a moment to reflect on all this,” Lenox Terrace’s Shebar said of Olnick. “They need to rebuild trust with the tenants.”
Built in 1958, Lenox Terrace was the first apartment complex in Harlem that catered to the black middle-class. The New York Times referred to it as “Harlem’s best address” in a 1968 profile. Over the years, it has been home to a slew of prominent Harlemites, from musicians like Miles Davis and Charles Mingus to politicians like former Governor David Paterson and Congressman Charlie Rangel.
For years, as an increasing amount of rent-stabilized apartments were converted to market rate ones, the demographics of the complex has been changing, becoming more affluent with mostly white tenants moving in. Many of the older tenants feared the expansion would have greatly exacerbated this trend.
“It meant the continued erosion of culture and displacement,” Shebar said.