Council drives another nail in coffin of Olnick’s Lenox Terrace project

Developer not giving up on 1.6K-unit proposal in Harlem despite unanimous vote; smaller project possible without rezoning

Feb.February 26, 2020 03:23 PM
City Council member Bill Perkins and Lenox Terrace 484 Lenox Avenue (Credit: Getty Images and Google Maps)

City Council member Bill Perkins and Lenox Terrace (Credit: Getty Images and Google Maps)

The City Council will soon find out if the Olnick Organization’s backup plan for its Lenox Terrace expansion was just a bluff.

The landlord’s odds of getting approval for its proposed 1,600-unit development in Harlem dwindled Wednesday when a City Council subcommittee voted unanimously to reject the zoning change Olnick sought.

But current zoning still allows for a sizable project.

Early this month, Olnick released a rendering of what it would build as-of-right in Harlem if the zoning were not changed: Four 200-foot-tall buildings instead of five as high as 284 feet. Rather than having 400 affordable apartments, they would be entirely market-rate. And $25 million worth of community amenities such as park space and a facility for urban farm Harlem Grown would not be included in the smaller project.

The full Council’s rejection of the rezoning is no longer in doubt — if it ever was once the local member, Bill Perkins, said this month that he was dead-set against the plan. By the legislature’s tradition, the rest of the chamber falls in line with the local member on land-use matters. Council Speaker Corey Johnson signaled this week that he has no intention of orchestrating approval over Perkins’ objections.

Perkins described the zoning subcommittee’s vote as “a firm statement of my support for the tenants.”

“The proposed plan is not appropriate for this community,” he said in a statement. “The 28-story towers are simply too tall.”

Perkins has said he also opposes the alternative, as-of-right project, but he has no authority to stop that, which gives Olnick some leverage to reach common ground.

Several factors have plagued the proposal, which calls for five new rental apartment buildings with 1,600 residential units, 400 of which would be affordable. Some community members say adding new units to the local housing supply would cause rents to go up because gentrifiers would move in. Objections to the size of the proposed buildings and the inconvenience of construction have been raised. And Perkins said Olnick lacked goodwill in Harlem because of various issues.

Perkins had called the landlord “a bad player in this community for years, not just since this zoning change was conceived over a decade ago,” according to Politico. Lenox Terrace, which Olnick built in 1958, consists of six towers, with 80% of their 1,700 apartments rent-stabilized. Olnick owns most of the land where it sits, between Fifth and Lenox avenues and West 132nd and 135th streets.

Olnick President Seth Schochet released a lengthy statement following the zoning subcommittee’s vote, indicating that he is not ready to give up on the rezoning and move forward with the as-of-right project just yet.

He said that his firm has been working with Harlem residents and community leaders for the past 15 years to come up with a universally beneficial strategy for Lenox Terrace, citing Olnick’s $33 million tenant benefits agreement and its offer to reduce its rezoning request by 35 percent as examples of trying to reach a compromise with the neighborhood.

“The subcommittee’s recommendation is unfortunate and fails to take into account” the tenant benefits agreement and rezoning reduction, he said. “We will continue pressing the case for this plan and working with residents, community leaders and elected officials in the coming weeks to reach an agreement before a vote by the full City Council.”

That vote is due to be held next month. Rezoning compromises between developers and the local Council member are often reached very late in the process but almost always before the zoning subcommittee vote.

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