Joe Rose in Spanish Harlem

Planning Commissioner Weighs Options for Factory Site

ESD considers the promise of jobs enough of a public good to merit condemnation (a judge will ultimately decide). Diane Phillpotts, president of a Harlem development group that represents ESD, says this project "sends signals to other developers that it is possible to work with the community."

Some business owners and residents opposed to the mall have formed a coalition and are suggesting an alternative: 420 units of housing on the Washburn site, with 20 percent reserved for low-income families. "We're not against developing this site," says Minic. "We're all for it. But this plan is wrong." Possession being nine-tenths of the law, however, the housing plan is relegated to the chalkboard: Blumenfeld bought the Washburn plant for $3.1 million in 1996.

Traffic, noise, and air quality are among the main concerns of those who don't want East River Plaza built. The neighborhood has one of the city's highest asthma rates, and mall opponents literally laughed at the conclusion of an environmental assessment that the project would have no effect on the neighborhood's respiratory health. And while Tiago plans to offer double-glazed windows and air-conditioning to residential tenants, it has offered nothing to abate noise in the four neighborhood schools attended by 3240 children. A local Community Board task force rejected the mall primarily on environmental grounds, but the full Community Board voted for it.

A possible political problem lurks at 503 East 116th Street, where landlord Theresa Palmieri is renovating a nine-unit tenement ruined in a 1992 blaze. Palmieri bought the building in 1997 and began renovating it that July. In May 1998, ESD announced its plans to take the property for the mall. Cosmo Palmieri, the landlord's son, says the building will be ready in September, with three tenants already lined up.

That could muck up ESD's careful plans to avoid displacing residential tenants and homeowners. If Palmieri's renters are booted for a mall, goodwill toward the project could dissipate. ESD plans to construct an office building for nonprofit groups as a community benefit, but so far no nonprofit tenants have been found.

"It's disturbing to see that we're taking away a building that's almost ready to rent so we can put in some unknown tenant in the future," planning commissioner Irwin Cantor said at last week's hearing. "Why must we take this parcel?"

William Minic has an answer: "They say it's for the community, but they're only doing this to bypass the [state]constitution. What this is about is giving a developer land for dirt cheap because now they think Harlem is safe for their people. It's what we used to call a land grab."

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