Harlem Power House Wants Addition
Eliot Brown Oct. 20, 2009, 5:42 p.m.
The owners of Lenox Terrace, a large central Harlem apartment complex with deep political roots, are planning a major new expansion on their property, a proposal that seems likely to set off a fight with the existing tenants.
But unlike most every other development battle in the city—which inevitably become political fights—the complex is literally the center of Harlem politics, as its tenants include Governor Paterson; Congressman Charles Rangel; Mr. Paterson’s father, Basil Paterson; and Percy Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president.
In recent weeks, the owners of the 1950s-era, 1,700-apartment property—the family-controlled Olnick Organization—accompanied by their lobbyists from the firm of Bill Lynch Associates, have been showing plans to tenants and elected officials that call for a set of new apartment towers that would rise in place of one-story retail on the edges of the complex, a tower-in-the-park development that currently has six brick high-rise apartments. Those briefed were told the development would have retail in the base and more than 1,200 apartments above.
These early plans—which would require City Council approval—have already provoked a sharp negative reaction from tenants and community members, who say the development is far too large and unnecessary. The tenants have petitioned their local elected officials to act on their behalf, with some success, portending a likely battle-to-be should the Olnicks proceed with their proposals in its current state.
“It’s insane. The proposition is just unbelievable,” said Delsenia Glover, president of the Lenox Terrace Association of Concerned Tenants, highlighting concerns about density, shadows, traffic and pollution. “It will absolutely destroy the quality of life, not only in Lenox Terrace, but in the neighborhood.”
While the Olnicks have been planning and discussing a possible expansion at the site for years, their recent actions suggest the firm is gearing up to move ahead at the complex, bounded by Fifth Avenue, Malcolm X Boulevard, 132nd Street and 135th Street. They have recently begun paying significant fees to their land-use attorneys at the firm Kramer Levin—$26,000 in the latest two-month report—usually a sign of documents being readied for the Department of City Planning.
And, apparently cognizant of the political heft such an undertaking would entail, the firm brought in the services of Bill Lynch, retaining his lobbying and consulting firm late last year. Mr. Lynch, a former deputy mayor in the Dinkins administration, has strong ties to the Harlem political class.
Further, the Olnicks have effectively given gifts to some of the top politicians in the complex, particularly to Mr. Rangel. He lives in a set of three rent-stabilized apartments, an odd setup that seems to be legal should the landlord be on board with the arrangement. The landlord also has the right to take those apartments out of rent stabilization for any household making more than $175,000 a year for two straight years, a category that would include Mr. Rangel. This is an opportunity that landlords typically jump on, given that they can take in far more through market-rate rents, though again, the Olnicks are not required to do so.
Thus far, several elected officials briefed on the plans seem to be sympathetic to the tenants’ perspective.
“It’s a very simple formula for me,” said State Senator Bill Perkins, referring to the tenants. “If they’re not happy, I’m not happy. Period.”
Should the Olnicks proceed, they would need to take the development through the city’s seven-month approval process, which would ultimately mean winning over the City Planning Commission and the City Council. In typical land-use fights, all the elected officials are wooed by both sides, with the developers frequently striking a deal with the local council member to clear the way for the project (a spokeswoman for that member in this case, Inez Dickens, said she shares some of the tenants’ concerns).
Looking forward, a timeline on the plan is unclear. The Olnicks, who did not respond to requests for comment, have not yet filed anything with the Department of City Planning, according to an agency spokeswoman.
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