Harlem rezoning critics call for protecting local retailers

Fearing the loss of small, local businesses on Harlem’s 125th Street corridor, critics of the city’s controversial rezoning plan urged a powerful City Council subcommittee today to set aside space for independent retailers or even limit new chain stores.

The full council is scheduled at the end of April to vote on the rezoning plan that would also create a special arts and cultural district on 125th Street. Critics charge the plan would overwhelm the community with dense office buildings and price local residents and small businesses out of Harlem.

“It’s been devastating,” said Regina Smith, executive director of the Harlem Business Alliance, which claims that small businesses are already being forced out by new developers. “The rate at which they are closing is extremely troubling to us.”

The Municipal Art Society of New York testified before the council’s Land Use Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises that 71 firms that employ about 975 employees in the area are threatened with direct displacement by the rezoning. Most of the businesses sell clothing and accessories.

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The society proposed limiting the size of Retailers Along 125th Street and requiring developments larger than 60,000 square feet to reserve space for independent local owned businesses. The proposal also calls ensuring that retail space remains permanently affordable.

Rezoning critics note that long-standing retailers like the famed record store Bobby’s Happy House and other shops have been forced out recently, as large chain stores and shopping mall developers like Kimco Realty Corp. acquire land in Harlem.

Smith noted that many small retailers have “demolition clauses” in their leases that essentially force them to give up their locations with little to no legal recourse.

An aide to Council Member Inez Dickens, who represents Central Harlem, said she is negotiating language into the rezoning plan that would compensate local businesses and find alternative locations for them to continue their businesses.

City Planning spokesperson Rachaele Raynoff said, “It was made very clear that we believe there has been an enormous amount of outreach. There is a willingness to discuss and negotiate any remaining concerns with the council member.”

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