Morningside Heights is a community that, like many, wants a seat at the table to plan its own future.
This diverse uptown community – home to longtime co-ops and rent-regulated walk-up residents, NYCHA residents, and students and professionals affiliated with its many institutions – have watched for decades as it became an island of vulnerability. All around it, other neighborhoods were being rezoned to provide a sensible framework for development and preservation, but not in Morningside Heights.
The community became increasingly anxious that they may fall victim to what was happening to other communities that were not keeping up with zoning changes around the city: influx of tall luxury developments and no protections for the people who have lived in the community for decades. Under their current zoning, projects in Morningside Heights did not have to include any affordable units. These fears have been realized in the last few years, as new luxury developments with no affordable units have pierced the skyline.
In 2016, representatives of the community – a grassroots organization known as the Morningside Heights Community Coalition (MHCC) – decided that they needed to do something drastic to save the historic and social character of the neighborhood.
MHCC quickly realized that other rezoning efforts around the city had grown increasingly contentious and difficult for communities and the City (through the Department of City Planning) to come to agreement on. They needed to find a “new path” for neighborhood rezoning processes, one that allows the city to work with a community that is open to growth and increase in density in tandem with common sense restrictions and was in line with the values and vision of the community.
MHCC began to cultivate a vision for their neighborhood that centered on protecting vulnerable tenants from displacement, creating new affordable housing to maintain the socioeconomic diversity of the neighborhood as it grows, and modest preservation of the neighborhood’s context on residential streets.
The Coalition took upon itself the task of identifying areas of the neighborhood for transit-accessible affordable housing development, buildings with rent-stabilized tenants at risk of displacement, and sites vulnerable to out-of-context redevelopment. After undergoing a multi-faceted review process, they identified a 15-block stretch (between 110th to 125th Streets) with twenty sites spanning from Riverside Park to Morningside Park that were vulnerable to luxury development without affordability requirements because of unused air rights or high vacancy rates.
With their focus identified, MHCC began a grassroots effort to work alongside community stakeholders to develop those ideas further, engaging with neighborhood stakeholders through a series of working group meetings, briefings, and stakeholder meetings.
MHCC also sought out local elected assistance to help develop a strategy for a truly community-led rezoning model. Over the past two years, MHCC has worked closely and received resources from Council Member Mark Levine, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and the land use team at the City Council, as well as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, to develop a block-by-block vision for their plan that could add well over 1,000 new units as well as protect countless more.
They also embarked on a process that has been designed to culminate in a rezoning application led by The City Council, the Borough President, and Community Board 9, instead of by a City agency – which in itself would be an unprecedented action, conferring unusual power to the community. But beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, this has been a truly community-led planning study. In Morningside Heights, residents and stakeholders themselves conceptualized the opportunity, led years of community engagement, and brought forward a draft zoning framework.
This study is a result of that work. The recommendations it puts forth are not a panacea for all the challenges Morningside Heights faces, but they are a start. We hope this study can serve as an instrument to facilitate further input from community residents and provide an opportunity for all members of the Morningside community to participate in this process.