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Why Harlem Is Getting a Truck Depot Instead of New Housing

The lot on West 145th Street in Manhattan was envisioned as a $700 million high-rise complex, with a civil rights museum and hundreds of below-market-rate apartments.

But after a local councilwoman protested, arguing that the project would bring more gentrification, the developer, Bruce Teitelbaum, gave an ultimatum: Unless his proposal was reconsidered, he would build a loud and unsightly truck depot.

On Wednesday, the trucks began to roll in.

“This is not the result we planned or hoped for on 145th Street,” said Mr. Teitelbaum, once an aide to former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. “But without someone who is willing to find common ground and compromise, we have no other viable alternative or choices.”

The councilwoman, Kristin Richardson Jordan, who faces re-election this year, has said she made the right decision. She has argued that the so-called affordable units would still have been too expensive for working-class residents.

She said she would have agreed to the project had Mr. Teitelbaum agreed to include more homes that were affordable to people with lower incomes — making a fifth of the apartments available to families of four earning $40,020 per year, for example, and reserving half of the apartments for families of four earning up to about $80,040.

“Let’s be clear, that is already an extreme compromise and is still quite awful and would be a total financial windfall for this developer making him and his investors plenty of profit,” she said. “And he should have taken it.”

At a time when New York City faces a housing shortage, the tug of war over the Harlem project appears to be a case study in how the powerful whims of developers and the morass of local politics can make it difficult to build new homes.

It also provides a unique look into the high-stakes nature of housing in New York City. By choosing to park trucks on the lot, Mr. Teitelbaum has raised the cost to the community of rejecting his vision, raising the question of whether other developers might follow suit and use publicity-driven tactics to influence local politics.

At the same time, the drama of the Harlem case, and perhaps the threat that developers might try similar antics elsewhere, has helped prompt a new spirit of cooperation among real estate executives and elected officials to find ways to make deals. Left-leaning City Council members recently backed two new affordable housing projects in Queens after negotiating with developers for more benefits for the community.

The 51-seat City Council has an unspoken tradition, known as member deference, that allows a council member to effectively veto land-use proposals in their district — a process that gave Ms. Jordan a decisive voice in the Harlem project. Her opposition signaled it would face steep hurdles. It never came to a vote.

The yearslong fight over the Harlem housing project, known as One45, has been acrimonious, culminating in the arrival of the trucks on Wednesday at the new “Park Your Fleet” facility. Mr. Teitelbaum stood nearby, theatrically waving toward the more than 10 trucks idling around him.

“This is my dream,” Mr. Teitelbaum said, his voice laced with sarcasm.

Iesha Sekou, a local activist with office space across the street from the depot, shouted at Mr. Teitelbaum from the sidewalk behind the chain-link fence, insisting that the depot would harm local children who suffered from asthma.

“He’s doing this as revenge,” said Ms. Sekou, founder of Street Corner Resources.

A man seated in the driver’s seat in one of the trucks said his boss had told him to come to the depot and sit for a couple hours.

On Wednesday, Ms. Jordan asked state officials to shut down the depot over environmental concerns.

Mr. Teitelbaum said he was not being vindictive and that he could not let the lot sit empty. He said he was considering building a smaller luxury apartment building, a self-storage facility or parking on the block, which would not require City Council approval. He also said that the original proposal needed to contain some market-rate units to make it profitable.

“What is the point in restarting a totally unpredictable process that is doomed from the get-go?” Mr. Teitelbaum said.

“This is my dream,” Mr. Teitelbaum said sarcastically as the trucks rolled in.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, has supported Mr. Teitelbaum’s proposal, and the mayor’s office said on Wednesday that he wanted to see housing on the site, not a truck depot. Charles Kretchmer Lutvak, a spokesman for the mayor, said that the Adams administration would “continue working with all of our partners on a comprehensive effort to bring much-needed affordable housing to Harlem and every neighborhood in New York City.”

Don Curtis, president of the United Black Caucus, a civil rights group that organized people living in the neighborhood to fight the development, said he thought Mr. Teitelbaum was “bluffing” because he wanted to soften any potential opposition to a future development on the site.

Mr. Curtis said he would have supported a project that provided jobs to people in the neighborhood and lower-cost homes.

“It would have been the tallest structure in all of Harlem,” he said. “It wouldn’t have benefited the community.”

Ms. Jordan, whose Twitter account had disappeared on Wednesday, identifies as a Black socialist, though groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the left-wing Working Families Party did not endorse her in the 2021 primary, which she won by around 100 votes.

Earlier this month, she held a “Harlem Not For Sale” rally earlier this month to oppose the truck depot. She said the community should not have to choose between a “high-rise luxury apartment complex that will displace our people in the last Black community in Manhattan and a truck stop that will add to the already dire levels of asthma in our community.”

Before the pandemic, major proposals like a rezoning of Industry City in Brooklyn and a proposed new headquarters for Amazon in Queens were halted over concerns that they would not benefit the neighborhoods surrounding them. But with growing concerns over affordability in the city, elected officials have been more eager to work with developers.

The City Council speaker, Adrienne E. Adams, has signaled that she is open to ending member deference, saying that she values community input, but not “irrational opposition that rejects desperately needed housing.” Ms. Adams helped negotiate the recent approval of a $2 billion development known as Innovation Queens that will add more than 3,000 homes in Astoria.

The Manhattan borough president, Mark Levine, said this week that the city should make another attempt at rezoning the Harlem site to build affordable housing. He said that the earlier proposal was “not perfect” but it had met the goal of offering half affordable units.

“I’m optimistic that this is doable,” he said. “It’s going to take work and it’s going to take compromise.”

Anita Laremont, a former chair of the City Planning Commission and executive director of the city planning department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that even if the neighborhood and the city prefer housing, land use rules may give Mr. Teitelbaum the right to go forward with the truck depot. She said that “letting what somebody’s conception of perfect is be the enemy of the good can result in consequences that are worse for the community.”

But, she added, “I’m not sure if one is looking to build relationships with the community, that the sort of histrionics of this approach is the best way to do it.”

Joshua Needelman contributed reporting.

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