In this city of contrasts, among the most remarkable is the one between Eighth Avenue from 42nd to 57th streets and the six blocks of Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem. Eighth Avenue is lined with glass-and-steel towers and jammed with stores, restaurants, and traffic. Pleasant Avenue, which runs between 114th and 120th streets east of First Avenue, is a swath of old tenements and bodegas surrounded by quiet dead-end side streets (some are cobblestone), and is home to federal-style houses and community gardens.
But for a moment late last month, the two avenues seemed intertwined. On July 21, City Planning Commissioner Joe Rose stunned a developer, an audience, and even some fellow commissioners when he abruptly closed a public hearing on a plan for East River Plaza, a proposed 508,000-plus-square-foot, $150 million megadevelopment— to be anchored by a massive 24-hour Home Depot and a Costco store— at the site of an abandoned wire factory along FDR Drive. Just as the developer’s architect offered to take questions at the end of a lengthy presentation, Rose stopped him in his tracks.
“We’ve got scale, traffic interaction, and aesthetic issues here that are significant enough to warrant some considerable discussion and reworking,” said the commissioner. “Each of these issues has not been addressed acceptably . . . and it’s not possible . . . to have a high degree of comfort that this is a project that . . . can work.” Rose held a second public hearing last week where developer Tiago Holdings LLC offered some design changes. At press time, the planning commission was holding a special session to continue the review; it must vote on the project by September 8.
Rose’s July move was a surprise coming from the prodevelopment chair, who, like Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is a proponent of big-box stores. Rose’s reservations about East River Plaza may have been underscored by state supreme court judge William McCooe’s stinging June 29 ruling that Rose and Giuliani had failed to do necessary environmental reviews last year when they and the City Council revised the zoning rules governing Eighth Avenue. That revision, intended to accommodate Times Square theater owners and midtown developers, came after a bruising battle with West Side residents. The city is expected to appeal McCooe’s decision.
Rose’s remarks were especially surprising given the political momentum behind the development: It is one of the few ventures backed by both the mayor and Governor George Pataki and, in fact, is being sponsored and partly funded by Pataki’s powerful Empire State Development corporation (ESD). Rose joined the pols at the hulking Washburn Wire plant (along the west side of the FDR between 116th and 119th streets) to announce the East River plan in March 1998; the factory has been idle since 1982. At the second public hearing, Rose continued to caution that while “there is a great amount of political enthusiasm for this project, it also needs careful scrutiny.” If Rose’s commission approves East River Plaza, it will be sent on to the City Council for a vote.
With plans for more than 3300 cars, buses, and taxis (and a cabstand that can handle 100 vehicles an hour) each weekday, and more than 1000 additional vehicles on the weekend, East River Plaza would require altering the FDR. That would not address the increase in commercial trucks and trailers, which are banned from the FDR and would be forced onto local streets. Overall, the plan would virtually rebuild a six-acre site. Home Depot officials expect the store to be among the nation’s top grossers.
The project’s promise of up to 2000 jobs has apparently made the megamall irresistible to every East Harlem pol and many members of this relatively impoverished community, including those who were bused to last week’s public hearing and given free lunch during the five-hour session. As local chamber of commerce president James Sanchez put it, “For too long, Washburn has been a sign of contempt for the people of East Harlem.”
But not everyone is biting. “The fact is, there might be jobs, but jobs will also be lost,” says William Minic, who has run his custom cabinetmaking shop on East 117th Street for 22 years. His owns one of at least 12 properties that would be condemned by ESD to make way for the mall. “There’s 144 skilled jobs among the businesses that will be condemned, and we figure 812 from peripheral businesses” that would dwindle in the shadow of Home Depot and Costco. Minic himself employs up to 20 people, including local residents he has trained as master cabinetmakers and who sign each piece they make.
Minic is especially steamed that his own property could be condemned on behalf of giant corporations. “Eminent domain is supposed to be used for the greater public good, not shopping malls and parking lots,” says Minic, whose father founded the shop in 1927.
Minic makes high-end custom furniture often used in movie sets and fabricated furniture for Frank Lloyd Wright, some of which is on display at the Museum of Modern Art. Ironically, his father once worked out of a building on First Avenue at 48th Street; that property was condemned in 1953 to make way for the United Nations. And Minic’s current shop is in an old parking garage he renovated. Under the East River Plaza plan, it would be demolished to accommodate a 1248-car parking structure.
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.”