Harlem has a new truck depot that almost no one wants.
The lot on West 145th Street serves as a sort of stalemate between a developer and a member of the City Council in a battle over use of the property.
The developer sought a rezoning to accommodate a multimillion-dollar housing complex, with some apartments set aside at below-market rates. The City Council member objected on grounds that not enough below-market units were included in the plan. The developer responded by turning the lot into a truck depot, spurring concern about pollution, foul-smelling air and noise.
“Morning Edition” host Michael Hill recently discussed the controversy with New York Times metro reporter Emma G. Fitzsimmons, who wrote an article about the controversy with Mihir Zaveri. Their conversation has been lightly edited for content.
Michael Hill: Emma, who is this developer and what has he proposed for the lot?
Emma G. Fitzsimmons: So his name is Bruce Teitelbaum and he is one of the major developers in New York City. He’s also a former aide to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
He has been in politics for a long time and he sort of knows the process. He pitched this big project in Harlem and was really disappointed when it couldn’t happen.
Now tell us about the Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan, who’s the one raising the concerns about enough below-market-rate housing being offered. Why doesn’t she like this building?
She thinks that the units wouldn’t be affordable enough for people who live in the neighborhood, and she wants to see those units really targeted toward working-class New Yorkers, homeless New Yorkers. She’s left-leaning. She identifies as a Black socialist and she really wants to represent her neighborhood for working-class residents, so she’s at odds with the developer here.
How does one councilmember have so much power over this development?
It’s really interesting. The New York City Council has this policy known as member deference, where the local councilmember really has say over all the projects in their neighborhood, and if she says no, then the project really doesn’t move forward.
And this is how it’s been in the Council for some time. The current City Council speaker, Adrienne Adams, says she’s open to looking at this policy because it really can just take one person to thwart a $700 million project.
And where does Mayor Eric Adams stand on all this?
Mayor Adams has been supportive of Teitelbaum’s original proposal, and he hasn’t commented on the most recent development, but his office sent a statement for our story saying they’d like to work with elected officials and with key community members to push forward affordable housing in Harlem and across the city. But he hasn’t said whether he’s willing to sort of fight for this project or whether he’s willing to intervene.
You know, affordable housing is a big thing in New York and people are always clamoring for more. So what is the state of affordable housing in Harlem specifically right now?
Harlem is a neighborhood that’s changed a lot. The biggest concern for the councilwoman was the idea that this would just make gentrification even worse, and that working-class people would be pushed out of the neighborhood – those who are still there.
But recently there’s been a lot of approvals. The City Council has been very favorable toward affordable housing projects because they realize the city’s in an affordability crisis and they really need to get these built as soon as possible.
And there’s a lot of talk right now about affordable housing. Gov. Kathy Hochul has said this will be a focus for her this year on a state level. And Mayor Adams is under pressure to address this problem because it’s really hard, especially with high inflation right now, it’s really hard to get by in New York City. And so he’s really under pressure to produce affordable housing. And in his first year in office, the advocates will say he hasn’t moved aggressively enough to help solve that problem.
Some activists will say Teitelbaum, the developer, is using this lot as revenge. Is that really true or is he pulling in a profit from it?
He says, “I have to do something with this site.” Some people think it’s more of a publicity stunt to sort of raise awareness about how frustrated he is about this process. And, you know, he would argue that the political system is broken if his project can’t move forward.
He would say, “I need to make some money on this site and I need to open it to something.” And he’s been threatening for months that he could do this truck depot there. And so finally on Wednesday last week, the trucks started rolling in. My colleague went to the site that day and it was interesting. One of the drivers said that his boss had told him just to go there and park for a few hours.
So some are questioning whether this is a functioning truck depot or whether it’s more of a publicity stunt.
If it is a functioning truck depot, doesn’t it add to the health concerns in Harlem? We know asthma rates there are higher than they are in other parts of the city and other parts of the state.
Yeah, some people have called this environmental racism and the city already is quite polluted. And this could just add to that.
Why does Teitelbaum want the building he proposed rather than the one with more affordable housing?
He says that the project needs to be profitable. He says that he has compromised over negotiations with the councilmember and with the council. He agreed to more affordable housing. He says that about half of the units would be affordable and that was much higher than the original proposal.
So he’s saying, “I’m willing to compromise, but I need to work with someone who is reasonable,” and he doesn’t think that the local councilwoman is being reasonable.
Emma, what are Harlem residents saying about the law?
Well, there were some people who showed up at the site the day that the truck started arriving and they were screaming at the developer. And they seem frustrated. But everyone agrees. This is sort of the worst-case scenario. The developer never wanted this. The councilmember never wanted this. The neighbors don’t want this. Nobody wants this.
Emma, tell us what’s happened since last Wednesday – Jan. 18.
There was this protest on Saturday led by the councilwoman and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and they’re saying, ‘you know, he should close down the truck depot.’ But the developer is really reluctant to submit a new application for a rezoning.
And so I think the truck depot is there to stay. It’s possible that he could build some luxury condos in another part of the site, but I don’t think he’s backing down for now.
Well, keep us informed, Emma. Thank you. Emma G. Fitzsimmons is a metro reporter from the New York Times.