City Planning recommends lifting height limit for Vornado’s Harlem Park

Mar.March 07, 2008 11:35 PM

The Department of City Planning will recommend lifting a proposed height limit under the planned 125th Street rezoning plan for the Harlem Park office complex, after a Vornado-led development team said the cap threatened to derail the Harlem’s first major new office tower in decades.

The city had proposed a height requirement of 290 feet, citing concerns by Harlem residents who fear new towers will overwhelm Harlem’s historic commercial corridor. Vornado, however, urged the city to exempt the 330-foot office complex from the height limit, claiming that construction delays brought on by redesigning tower would threaten pending lease agreements with two potential tenants, a new cable television network from Major League Baseball and the Inner City Broadcasting Corp. radio network, the parent of 107.5 FM WBLS radio.

The developers said the height was necessary because of the satellites and antennas the broadcasters would need.

“It is a unique site,” said Rachaele Raynoff, spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning. “Given that, it can accommodate somewhat greater height than the Special District proposed.”

If approved, the measure would represent a victory for Vornado, which is developing the office complex with San Francisco-based urban development firm MacFarlane Partners and Integrated Holdings, a Manhattan firm led by former Apollo Theater president Derek Johnson.

The proposed Harlem Park project includes 540,000 square feet of Class A office space and 90,000 square feet of retail. Vornado took the project over from developer Michael Caridi, who in 2004 announced plans for a 34-story office tower anchored by Marriott Courtyard hotel, but failed to secure financing.

Shimon Shkury, managing director and a partner at Massey Knakal, said the project, located next to the 125th Street Metro North station, could be a coup for Harlem.

“There has been a lot going on behind the scenes from people who have sold property, partnered up with joint ventures or decided to keep their property just because Vornado is going to change the face of 125th Street,” said Shkury, who manages the Massey Knakal’s Harlem office.

However, critics say that lifting the height requirement would open up the door for new developers that want to build dense skyscrapers on 125th Street.

“This is where all the wheeling and dealing happens so they start doing carve outs,” said Juan D. Reyes III, a partner in the law firm Riker Danzig and former general counsel to the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals. “The community is not in the business of subsidizing Vornado’s business plan.”

The proposed 125th Street rezoning would allow developers to create denser buildings with commercial, residential and retail space, with a special emphasis on the arts and entertainment venues. The plan could create 1.8 million square feet of commercial space, plus 2,500 new residential units, including 500 units dedicated to low- and middle-income families.

Officials said the height exemption would apply only to the Harlem Park project and not extend to other projects within the proposed district.

The City Planning Commission review must be completed by Monday, and the City Council will cast a final vote later this spring.

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