Monthly Archive: February 2017

Wichita Bike Lane Gets a Safety Makeover With the Help of Toilet Plungers

A cyclist rides along Chicago’s Dearborn Street in a special bike lane. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

When it comes to cyclist safety, physical barriers like parked cars or plastic bollards are a clear step up from painted white lines. Vigilante urbanists have taken this to heart in the past, erecting makeshift barriers from potted plants or traffic cones. Recently, a mysterious Wichita do-gooder took a similar approach — this time, with toilet plungers.

Last weekend, local cyclist Tom Ramsey was riding downtown when he noticed what he believed to be white posts sticking out of the ground between the bike lane and the rest of the street, reports. The “posts” had reflective tape on them, but as Ramsey approached them he realized they were actually plungers stuck to the ground.

The plungers’ backstory is shrouded in mystery. KSN approached the city of Wichita to see if they were part of an official campaign, but a city spokesperson said he didn’t know who’d erected them. The plungers were reportedly removed by Tuesday morning, but the spokesperson said he didn’t know who had removed them. Wichita police said that whoever put them up could get a ticket for littering.

Guerrilla style advocacy for protected bike lanes in Wichita. From @KSNNews | Moving the conversation on #cycling.

— 20/20/20 Movement (@202020movement) February 27, 2017

Ramsey told the news source that at the spot where the plungers went up, the bike lane often becomes a de facto turn lane for drivers, even though that’s not technically legal. The problem of drivers merging into bike lanes at intersections is certainly not unique to Wichita — it was the inspiration for a similar effort in Boston in 2015. That make-shift bike lane was erected by Jonathan Fertig, who put down potted flowers and traffic cones after reading a book about tactical urbanism.

Last year, a Philadelphia man tried something similar, also near a dangerous intersection where cars routinely drifted into the bike lane to turn. His lane drew from stray traffic cones left around the city from Verizon, PGW and the Philadelphia Water Department, according to

If enthusiastic (or, perhaps, desperate) citizens can buy flowers, collect stray cones and elusively stick plungers to ground at the risk of littering fines, maybe their cities could invest in some simple barriers.

hotel inside thomas heatherwick’s renovated grain silo set to open in cape town

the hotel is housed within the grain elevator portion of the historic complex, occupying six floors above what will become a major contemporary art museum.

The post hotel inside thomas heatherwick’s renovated grain silo set to open in cape town appeared first on designboom | architecture & design magazine.

Largest U.K. Light-Rail System Keeps Expanding

Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens station (Photo by Rept0n1x)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

New Tram Line Section Opens in Manchester
The second section of Manchester Metrolink’s Second City Crossing, which was delayed when construction workers unearthed an ancient burial ground, opened for service Feb. 26.

The Guardian reports that the 185 million British pound ($230.6 million U.S.) line connecting Manchester Victoria Station with its neo-Gothic town hall, is the final part of a 1.5 billion British pound ($1.8 billion U.S.) transit expansion plan.

Two years ago, construction workers discovered the remains of 280 bodies buried in shallow graves about a foot and a half below Cross Street. The graveyard was attached to a 1694 church that had been destroyed during World War II. Work on the line was delayed for several months while archaeologists exhumed the bodies.

Peter Cushing, director of Metrolink for Transport for Greater Manchester, said the new line will add capacity and improve the reliability of service through the city center: “If we ever have an issue, for example, in Piccadilly Gardens, we can run things along the Second City Crossing rather than have to wait to resolve the issue.”

The 25-year-old Manchester Metrolink is the largest light-rail system in the United Kingdom, spanning almost 62 miles with 93 stations. A further extension planned for 2020 will add 4 more miles and six more stations to the system.

Memphis Trolleys Will Roll Again This Summer (But You Can’t Ride Them Yet)
Memphis’ downtown heritage trolley line, which was shut down in 2013 after two of its vintage Melbourne tramcars were destroyed by fires, will get rolling again this summer, the Memphis Business Journal reports, but residents and visitors won’t be able to board the cars again until the end of the year.

Memphis trolley in 2006 (Photo by Christian Banck)

The cars will run test trips as part of the ongoing repair process being carried out in accordance with safety directives from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).

Last year, the Memphis Area Transportation Authority (MATA) brought in an international transit and rail consulting group, SNC-Lavalin, to help document the repair process in accordance with the FTA and TDOT requirements.

MATA has spent $10 million so far on restoring the neglected cars. To date, the agency has purchased one new car and refurbished two, with two more now being restored. Restoration of the first cars took longer than expected because of their age and documentation requirements.

Seattle Transit Tunnel Being Carved Out by Hand
Given that it took almost two years to unstick Bertha, the tunnel boring machine that was digging the replacement for Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, it may be no surprise to read that it will take two years to dig a 10-block-long tunnel under downtown Bellevue for a Sound Transit light-rail extension.

According to a news story in The Seattle Times, though, this time it’s because workers are digging the tunnel out by hand, so to speak.

The tunnel under 110th Ave. NE is being dug out 4 feet at a time using conventional construction equipment with carving attachments and handheld power tools when needed. Once the crew has advanced 4 feet, it will spray the dirt with fast-drying concrete before it crumbles, insert an arc-shaped steel lattice, and spray more concrete into the lattice.

The technique is known as “sequential excavation,” and Sound Transit chose it in order to minimize noise and disruption on the surface. A Sound Transit official said that boring machines would be expensive and require staging areas on the surface, while a cut-and-cover tunnel would have required expensive relocation of utility lines.

Sequential excavation carries with it the risk that a section of exposed dirt will collapse before it can be stabilized, but workers can spot trouble quickly using this method.

The tunnel and downtown Bellevue station being built represent a compromise between Bellevue city officials, who wanted a subway station closer to Bellevue Square mall, and cost-conscious Sound Transit officials, who said the shorter, shallower tunnel saved $200 million of what would have been an extra $320 million to build a subway through central Bellevue instead of the elevated route included in the ST2 funding package as a placeholder.

Know of a project that should be included in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Trump Will Not Roll Back Urban Progress Without a Fight From Cornell Brooks

NAACP President Cornell Brooks (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Cornell Brooks is three years into leading the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots-based civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We spoke recently about the work the NAACP is doing in the wake of the presidential election, his thoughts on Trump’s Cabinet picks and the national racial climate.

You’ve been putting yourself on the front lines of protest, most recently being arrested in the U.S. Senate Office of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, for objecting to his nomination to lead the Department of Justice. Why is this activism important to you and your organization, and what do you hope to achieve?
I would note here that many people took the sit-in against Senator Sessions as the first, or one of the first, acts of civil disobedience in direct action against not merely a nomination, but this administration’s policy.

And when we say that, we don’t mean it in any way partisan — we’re very, very policy specific. So in other words, where the president calls for a draconian and Nixonian turn, the expansion of law and order, when he blesses and indicates federal encouragement for the expansion of a constitutionally wrong-headed, morally wrong policy of stop and frisk, proven to be, at least through a federal district court, racially discriminatory and constitutionally violative, we have to take a position against that. So we choose old school tools in new ways.

This was not without risk. So in other words, getting caught, fingerprinted, booked, being subject to 90 days in jail and a significant fine, and having one’s professional and personal reputation broadcast in ways that are deleterious and damaging is not anything anybody can take lightly. I practiced law for many years. I represented the United States as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice. I signed briefs and complaints, where beneath my name was “on behalf of the United States.” I do not take breaking the law lightly. But we had to.

President Trump and HUD Secretary-Designate Ben Carson have vowed to end former President Obama’s signature fair housing policy aimed at reducing housing segregation and combating discriminatory housing practices — the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. Will the NAACP fight the rollback?
Absolutely. It is a longstanding principle of the law that HUD and the government have a responsibility to affirmably further fair housing. Now, where we have rampant housing discrimination in the market, we need affirmative tools to address it.

For example, the foreclosure prices, the mortgage prices, what did we see? We saw subprime lenders convincing middle-class African-Americans, middle-class Latinos with prime credit to take subprime loans. Was this a matter of gullibility? No. This was a matter of discrimination. And so, it is ironic in the extreme, that next year, in 2018, the Fair Housing Act will be 50 years old. When was it passed? It was passed within a week of Martin Luther King being assassinated. So wouldn’t it be perversely ironic that on the eve of the anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which was literally passed in the blood of Martin Luther King, for this president and his nominee, Dr. Ben Carson to roll back a pillar of fair housing in the country.

So short answer to your question, if they do it or attempt to do it, again not a threat, but a prediction and a promise, the NAACP — in its 2,200 units in 50 states, military installations, Native American reservations, colleges, high schools, every large city in the country, hundreds and hundreds of small towns — we will respond with unrelenting pressure. This is something the administration should reconsider.

We’re living in what is termed, “the century of cities.” How does the “NAACP Strategic Plan: Game Changers for the 21st Century” address inequality, especially in cities?
We are at the moment in this country where we have an opportunity to take the places that are often bearing the brunt of inequality, where you see the most pronounced disparities of wealth and race, and make them oases of opportunity. That means using our game changers. Here’s what it means: It’s hard to revitalize cities if you have dysfunctional police departments and unsafe neighborhoods. It’s hard to revitalize cities when there’s a chasm of trust between police department and the citizenry. And so our game changers, with respect to addressing policing, community policing, doing something about body cameras, passing the Law Enforcement and Integrity Act and the Inter-racial Profiling Act, cleaning our police departments of the most implicit, bias, but also de-escalation of force.

When we look at our economic opportunity or economic development work, one of the things that we are focusing on right now, is what we call our social covenant bonds, which is work that I started at the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice in my second hometown, Newark, New Jersey, which is a tool used to leverage procurement, leverage employment in cities.

These are the sorts of things that the NAACP does, not back in Washington, but in literally in every hometown near you. And we’re doing them in the place where they count the most — in cities. Right?

When we met almost a decade ago, when you were a fellow at Leadership New Jersey and leading the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, you successfully fought for “ban the box” and prisoner re-entry legislation which the New York Times hailed as “a model for the rest of the nation.” Have these laws produced the changes you had intended?
Yes and no. For companies that are not hell bent on discriminating, yes. For companies that are intent on being surreptitious on civil rights laws, no. What we’ve seen is some companies use “ban the box” to categorically deny, based on presumption and function, people the opportunity to compete for work. Now does that mean “ban the box” laws don’t work? Here’s what it means. Some studies that suggest that when you postpone the criminal background inquiry into later in the process, which is exactly what the federal government does every day to great benefit and no detriments, some companies will simply say African-American and Latino men, because they may have a criminal background, let’s weave them out of the process all together. Now, as a former civil rights practicing lawyer, that’s a great way to find yourself at the back end of a lawsuit. Those are the facts, and it’s only a matter of time before some of these companies wake up in the back end of a multimillion-dollar class-action suit with great reputational damage and market impact, that they come to the realization, be fair, be reasonable, hire the best people, screen out incompetent, screen out people who don’t have the willingness to work, use an inclusive standard, hire the best people, but don’t discriminate. That’s exactly what we do at the NAACP. We’re tough, we only hire the top 5 percent, but we’ll hire diversity. And that means that if someone has a criminal background, not related to the work, and they can do the job, and qualify for the job, we hire. And if they’re not, we don’t. That’s all we ask.

And do you see the actual changes in places like Newark and others that have adopted these forms of legislation?
You know, I think it’s too early to tell. I’ll say this: The companies like Walmart, Target, John Hopkins Medical Center, companies that have adopted ban-the-box policies and who are subject to ban-the-box laws and are using them effectively, say that they get better people. We passed the ban-the-box law in New Jersey based upon the work of John Hopkins University. We consulted with them, we had their VP of Human Resources talking to New Jersey business people about working with people with criminal records. And what did they say? They say that the absentee rate is lower. Job performance, higher. The work ethic that people bring to work, greater. Among those people with criminal records, because they’re happy to have a job. And I met with those folks only a week or so ago and they’re still engaged with this work. The point being here is that the companies that do use the policy the way it’s supposed to be used, it helps.

The NAACP has a clear mission to ensure political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination. What do you see as the biggest challenge to achieving this mission?
The largest challenge would have to be the disenfranchisement of Americans of color and varying ethnicity and generation in the wake of the election and reelection of the nation’s first African-American president. We are in a perversely ironic moment that you have this multiracial, multiethnic, multigenerational coalition of Americans who elected Barack Obama as president. And in the wake of that, we’ve seen a generationally unprecedented, and Machiavellian frenzy of voter disenfranchisement.

We saw in Texas, a state legislature pass a bill which meant that an ID that empowers you and enables you to carry a concealed weapon was deemed to be sufficient civic and democratic proof to vote, but an ID that allows you to carry a book of chemistry, a book of engineering, a book of English, was deemed to be insufficient civic and democratic proof to vote. And that imperiled 630,000 votes in Texas. Similar voter ID laws were passed in Alabama imperiling 500,000 votes. A similar ID law was passed in the state of North Carolina imperiling the votes of 5 percent of the election. And all across the country we’ve had politicians admit aloud and in broad daylight that they’re doing this to maintain partisan advantage using racially discriminatory and generationally disadvantageous tools. So you move voting booths off of college campuses, move voter registration off of college campuses, decline to honor college and high school IDs, pass onerous, restrictive, racially discriminatory voter ID laws where you know one out of every 10 eligible American voters does not have a government issued photo ID. One out of every four African-Americans does not have a government issued photo ID. And, where we know for a fact that it is not necessary. So in other words, we have people using the myth of voter fraud as pretext and an excuse for voter suppression. It’s not right. The studies make it clear to us that out of 1 billion ballots cast there were little more than 30 instances of voter fraud. So here we have, after the election and reelection of President Obama, this frenzy of voter suppression across the country. And what has the NAACP done? We’ve gone to court and in 10 cases, in 10 months, we won, in conservative courts.

And so we believe that fighting voter suppression is a number one issue. Today you have a diverse, millennial-majority electorate that understands that diversity is not a gauzy ideal; it is the multicolored reality in which we live. Those folks support government that is accountable, government that is transparent, government that respects civil liberty and civil rights to the citizenry. And we got a set of politicians in this country that were faced with a choice. The choice is to persuade or cheat, and some of them have chosen manifestly to cheat. So that’s our number one issue. In other words, it’s hard to get criminal justice reform, if the people can’t vote. It’s hard to get immigration reform if the people can’t vote. It’s hard to protect the rights of the members of the LGBT community if you don’t have access to the vote.

And last one on this, Tom, is quite simply this: People within and without the ranks of the NAACP have literally died.

When I walk into the headquarters of the NAACP in Baltimore, I have to walk past the bronze bust of a black man by the name of Medgar Evers who laid down his life for the right to vote in Alabama — where we got arrested, booked, fingerprinted and cuffed, not comfortably. Viola Liuzzo, an Italian housewife from Detroit, lost her life. Reverend James Reeb lost his life for the vote. Jonathan Daniels, a young seminarian, lost his life for the right to vote. Jimmy Lee Jackson, young African-American and a veteran, lost his life for the right to vote. Martyrs for the vote. So how is it in the name of God, in 2017, that we have politicians, walking around, mouthing the myth of voter fraud, doing nothing about voter suppression.

They give medals, acknowledging the legacy of the past, while denying the reality of the present. Absolutely shameful.

And to have the President threaten last week a voter suppressive executive order, which then put us in the position to remind him, Dear Mr. President, if you issue an executive order, it will be met with unrelenting resistance.

And of course the media asks, was that a threat? Not a threat — a prediction and a promise. It’s got to be the number one issue.

It’s impressive that you consider yourself “an heir” of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Do you have a concern that new Supreme Court appointees nominated by President Trump will endanger that legacy?
I’m concerned. I’m concerned because when I say I’m “an heir,” I mean I am among the youngest of the baby boomer generation and among the oldest of the hip hop generation. So being born too young to remember the civil rights movement, except for history books, but going to segregated schools, integrated schools, being in the first or second class of Head Start, and ending up at Boston University, Yale Law School and HBCU Jackson State University. I’ve benefited from all of those opportunities. I’ve benefited from those Brown v. Board opportunities, and my parents and grandparents legacy of hard work, drive, ambition — all the things that people teach you in Sunday school or on Shabbat — so I get that. But the things your parents teach you only work if you got an opportunity to use them. That means unsegregated doors of opportunity. Segregation is a restraint on competitiveness; it’s a constraint on meritocracy.

Here’s what I know, W.E.B. DuBois pursued his PhD in sociology being the first African-American to graduate from Harvard with a PhD. Why? Because Harvard University, at the turn of the century decided that it did not want to be a finishing school for well-heeled gentlemen from New England, and the president of the university decided to reach out and extent opportunity to people from across the country, including people from the South. So W.E.B. DuBois though he was from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was going to school at Fisk, and they created an outreach if you will, to recruit more people to Harvard. It’s a meritocracy, when women, people of color, people from diverse backgrounds, people with different sounding names, or names that would be perceived to be different sounding, when they enter the pool, it’s more competitive. It’s more of a meritocracy. That’s what this country is about.

And so, I’m concerned about any slippage in terms of a commitment to integration. Integration is not just a quaint notion from the past, integration is about modern-day America. Because when we talk about having a globally competitive workforce, that’s just another way of saying integration in the market. Integration in our schools. Integration in the workplace. And that requires intentionality. It doesn’t just happen. And so, we’re concerned about that, we’re looking at (Supreme Court nominee) Gorsuch’s cases, his records, his jurisprudence, his character. We take it seriously. The NAACP is the organization that’s probably won more cases before the Supreme Court than anyone, any organization. We take every seat on the Supreme Court seriously. We’re currently vetting the record of Judge Gorsuch and we will see.

At NYC Lot, Housing, Opportunity and Open Space Converge

A lot at West 126th Street in Harlem, currently in use as a community garden but now slated for development

Competing priorities are a way of life in most cities, and that can get messy.

For example, New York City wants more affordable housing. It has also invested time, money and even political capital to support diversity among the people building that housing.

Yet the affordability of that housing is also coming under fire, as it routinely isn’t obtainable by the most vulnerable residents in the city. The city is giving away public land to developers and subsidizing financing to build what it calls affordable housing, often in place of community gardens and other open space. Meanwhile there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of lost or forgotten opportunities to restore or preserve existing affordable housing around the city.

These competing priorities are on display at 263-267 West 126th Street in Harlem, where a treasured community garden is slated for development by a minority-owned firm.

Kenneth Morrison was born and raised in the Bronx, but has worked in Harlem most of his adult life. He started working at Lemor Realty, his father’s Harlem-based real estate company, in 1988. Morrison started out as a broker, doing real estate sales, but the market was slow at the time. Nobody wanted to buy. Decades of redlining and underinvestment hit Harlem hard in the 1980s, and then came the crack epidemic. From 1989-1990, the five Harlem and East Harlem ZIP codes were all among the top 10 of 168 ZIP codes citywide for substance abuse admissions to hospitals.

To stay afloat, Lemor Realty got into property management. They took on contracts with NYC’s famous affordable housing co-ops, which are all over the city but unusually common in Harlem and other parts of northern Manhattan. Lemor Realty also became a 7A administrator, one of many court-appointed property management companies that would take over for absentee landlords who had essentially abandoned buildings, resulting in building conditions that are dangerous to tenants. 7A administrators would come in on a court order to collect rent and even take out debt in order to make necessary repairs, like replacing heating and hot water systems or putting on a new roof.

In the mid-1990s, Lemor Realty joined the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program, run by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). In this program, the city worked with smaller real estate companies, transferring buildings into their ownership that were previously foreclosed on or in need of a gut rehabilitation, sometimes vacant and sometimes not.

“They were looking for small, locally based developers in the same neighborhoods where the buildings were,” Morrison says. The goal was to provide new opportunities to companies that owned little to no property at the time.

The Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program transformed Lemor Realty. “That was our first foray into development,” Morrison says. From owning about 30 units, they went to owning hundreds. Today, Lemor Realty manages a portfolio of around 950 units, most of which it owns. Though his father has since died, the firm is still based in Harlem.

Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Lemor Realty and joint venture partner Apex Building as one of six winning teams to develop hundreds of affordable housing units at six vacant sites reserved for MWBE development firms. (MWBE is the designation for businesses owned by minorities and women.)

Morrison’s winning proposal for the West 126th Street site would be the first totally new construction Lemor Realty has ever done.

It took state legislation back in 2014 to gain permission for HPD to set aside sites for development by MWBE firms. The bill was part of broader efforts to confront the fact that white-owned and -operated firms dominate NYC real estate. According to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Survey, The Real Deal reported, whites hold 74 percent of the city’s professional real estate roles, including 86 percent of senior leadership roles.

“Being able to create a dedicated pipeline would not only help the agency and its goals, but also the city’s goals to increase opportunity and get more participants in our development projects that are more representative of the communities we broadly serve,” says Baaba Halm, HPD’s assistant commissioner for economic opportunity and regulatory compliance.

The city’s goals include the approximately 80,000 new affordable housing units promised under the mayor’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over 10 years. HPD wants to support MWBE developers so they can compete with non-minority firms to build new affordable housing units slated under the plan. To do that, HPD began by offering classes to explain the city’s request for proposals (RFP) process for transferring city-owned land to developers for construction of new affordable and market-rate housing.

The bill to carve out properties for MWBE-only development complemented those classes — all of the six winning proposal teams from last month’s announcement participated in at least some of the capacity-building classes. The winning teams have also been invited back to help teach a new set of classes coming up in the fall.

In picking the six sites for a dedicated MWBE development pipeline, HPD received feedback from MWBE developers that they needed to focus on smaller sites than usual when HPD transfers city-owned land to developers. Typically, the city likes to maximize the number of units created on city-owned land. A city-owned site in East Harlem, currently in use as a set of community gardens, had a recent request for proposals to build upward of 655 units. For firms like Lemor Realty, which has never done new construction before, that scale is simply out of reach at this point. They’ve never had to assemble the subcontractors and financing needed to build any kind of new construction, let alone one that large.

HPD hopes that giving MWBE developers a set of smaller sites to develop from the ground up now would help set them up to do larger projects later. So the six sites needed to have square footage and zoning for between 20 and 80 units, according to Eunice Suh, HPD’s assistant commissioner for planning and predevelopment. Suh also says they wanted geographic diversity in the sites: three are in Brooklyn, two are in the Bronx and one is in Manhattan. They also needed to be vacant lots, to give MWBE firms the opportunity to do new construction. These criteria narrowed down the sites to just a relative few throughout the city, and the spot at 126th Street in Harlem fit right in the mold, zoned for 29 units.

Lemor Realty has already recruited Harlem-based tech incubator Silicon Harlem to take some of the space on the ground floor of the new building, where there will also be room for a restaurant. In terms of housing, nine units will have rents set to be affordable for households at 80 percent of area median income or AMI (about $48,000 a year for an individual or $69,000 for a family of four), nine for households at 100 percent of AMI (around $61,000 for an individual or $86,000 for a family of four), and 10 units for households at 130 percent of AMI (around $77,000 for an individual or $110,000 for a family of four).

The housing affordability levels are set within the constraints of HPD’s various term sheets for its subsidized financing. The Harlem MWBE developer team selected the Neighborhood Construction Program (NCP) term sheet, which generally provides a 30-year, 1 percent interest loan for up to 90 percent of total development costs, plus a subsidy of up to $100,000 in grant dollars per housing unit for buildings that have rents set to be affordable anywhere from 30 percent AMI to 165 percent AMI.

Median income in Harlem, however, is around $36,000. So despite subsidized, low-cost public financing from HPD, and a transfer of the land to the developer for just $1, the building as currently planned is not serving the lower half of households by income in Harlem.

“As a Harlem-based developer, and I also reside in the community, I’m always conscious of affordability for folks in the community,” Morrison says. “We take that into consideration, but there are affordability needs across all income levels in Harlem.”

Morrison says they considered other term sheets from HPD that can subsidize more deeply affordable housing, but they couldn’t make the financials work for them with 29 units. In order to build more deeply affordable units, Morrison says they’d need to be able to build more units on the site than current zoning allows.

In Harlem, Rene Calvo isn’t buying it, no matter how affordable the building may or may not be in the end. The owner and operator of Harlem Flophouse, whose grandfather formerly ran a bodega in East Harlem, wants to know why the city is moving forward with building on this particular site while there are an estimated 2,300 or so vacant units in public housing due to disrepair, and another estimated 1,100 vacant buildings throughout the city that could be made available for affordable housing development.

He also points to the city’s continued tax lien sales, in which the city sells outstanding property tax or water and sewage debt to investors. Many of these properties end up settling debts by selling themselves to the investors who buy the debt, often jeopardizing their status as affordable housing. Calvo says instead of selling debt to investors, the city could use the debt as leverage to bring properties into permanent affordable housing status.

“Explain to me how this is benefiting the community,” says Calvo. “Really, explain to me how it’s justified to give away publicly owned land to a developer to build housing for rich people. Justify that to me, and I’ll go away.”

Calvo organized several hundred signatures from community members back in 2014 to create the Mandela Community Garden at the same 126th Street site now targeted for development. As with all new community gardens, Calvo and his fellow organizers promised HPD initially that it would be an interim garden. The group invested about a year of work de-paving the lot by hand, using all volunteer labor. Their hope was that it could someday become permanent. It wasn’t exactly a pipe dream; at the end of 2015, the city announced 34 “interim” community gardens had been transferred to the Parks Department, giving them permanent status. Mandela Garden didn’t make the cut at the time, but Calvo has no plans to give up the garden without a fight.

Mandela Community Garden organizers, HPD and the developer team have time to hash things out. As with all transfers of city-owned land to developers, the site will have to undergo the various steps and pre-steps for the city’s Universal Land Use Review Procedure or ULURP (you-lurp), as it’s known. The whole thing, including a pre-ULURP environmental impact study, could take up to two years from now before any breaking ground can occur.

Morrison says his staff have considered working with the garden organizers to preserve some ground-floor space for the garden, but have not yet reached out, leaving the task of working out the details with Calvo and others to HPD for now. Under the city’s ULURP process, the person with the final say in the matter is effectively the local council member, Bill Perkins, who was just elected in a special election to replace predecessor Inez Dickens (who was elected to New York’s State Assembly in November).

Calvo held a meeting last week at Harlem Flophouse to strategize how to reach out to the council member, who held the seat previously from 1998 to 2005.

“If you’ve noticed there’s been a dramatic change in the political environment,” Calvo says. “All levels of government are being challenged as to what their true affiliations are.”