It’s a brand new day in the New York City Council – and the next land use battle is already brewing over a project in Harlem, pitting a new council member with few political allies against power players such as the Rev. Al Sharpton.
And even though City Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan has drawn a line in the sand opposing the upzoning to allow the One45/ Museum of Civil Rights project, the developer is going forward with the application. That means the City Council under Speaker Adrienne Adams could once again buck member deference – the de facto policy of voting with the local member on land use matters.
Two towers over Harlem
One45 would be a large mixed use building on 145th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard – a block known to politicos statewide as home to Sharpton’s National Action Network House of Justice, an essential political pilgrimage site. Two 363-foot-tall towers would hold a total of somewhere between 866 to 939 housing units, with about 250 of those being subsidized affordable housing under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing framework. Exact specifications aren’t decided yet, but one option would set rents for most of the affordable units for tenants making an average of 60% of the Area Median Income – about $50,000 for a single person – corresponding to $1,204 a month for a one-bedroom. One45 would also include 48,000 square feet designated for the first home of a new Museum of Civil Rights, space for NAN headquarters and additional office and retail space. And while it wasn’t mentioned in the land use application, the developer has proposed making the project center of a “Green Energy Improvement District” generating solar and geothermal energy for not just the building, but the surrounding blocks.
The area has been hurt “by redlining, reverse redlining, disinvestment. We want to change that,” said developer Bruce Teitelbaum, managing partner of One45 Lenox LLC. He called it “one of the biggest, if not the biggest private investment in Harlem’s history” that will “confer a tremendous amount of benefits to the existing community.”
KRJ isn’t here to schmooze
But to Richardson Jordan, who represents Harlem in the City Council, One45 is “the newest attempt to chip away at Harlem” that will “include the demolition of almost an entire city block filled with small businesses, restaurants and community centers.” The two towers will be “far taller than any other building in the area” and 70% of the housing will be market rate, meaning rents would likely be unaffordable to people making an average salary for the area. The promise of a Museum of Civil Rights “in exchange for the destruction of this neighborhood is truly the cherry on top of this unappetizing sundae.”
That’s what Richardson Jordan wrote in an email to all her City Council colleagues on Jan. 5, the day of the Council’s first meeting. That same day, Richardson Jordan and Brooklyn City Council Member Charles Barron (a Richardson Jordan ally who attended a meeting with the One45 development team and the younger council member) were the only members to vote against Adams as speaker. Adams and Richardson Jordan are both Black women, and Adams would be the first Black speaker, but “we need more than symbolic representation,” Richardson Jordan said.
That’s just a hint at the political intrigue around this land use application. Under the policy of member deference, Richardson Jordan’s opposition to the project would mean it was dead on arrival. The developers would have no choice but to either negotiate to a point of mutual agreement with the local member or to pull the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure application entirely. But Richardson Jordan has ruffled feathers in the Council already. Three Council members, all of whom asked for anonymity to discuss internal politics, told City & State that it doesn’t seem like Richardson Jordan has been trying to build relationships with her colleagues. “She has engaged less with her counterparts over the last six months than any other member in the council,” said one new legislator. “She’s coming in on an island.”
That may not entirely be of her own making. As a self-identified Black socialist and abolitionist, Richardson Jordan may be the most left-leaning council member, and some more moderate Democrats have made a show of ignoring democratic socialists in office. But there are other democratic socialists and progressives on the Council, many of whom are younger people of color, and Richardson Jordan isn’t part of the club.
That lack of connection could make it easier for members to vote against her, if One45 comes for a vote before the council later this year. The council approved the New York Blood Center rezoning in November over local Council Member Ben Kallos’ objections. It was said to be the first time the Council hadn’t deferred to the local member since 2009, and members privately explained that it might not have happened had Kallos been more personally popular or willing to collaborate.
‘“We’ll see how this will go for her,” one member said of Richardson Jordan, “because part of being in the council is building coalitions among like-minded individuals.”
Richardson Jordan said she’s looking forward to working with the whole council. “I apologize if there are any members who feel like they’ve been getting the cold shoulder. That’s definitely not my intent,” she said. The council member she beat to win her seat, Bill Perkins, was inactive in the district due to health issues, so Richardson Jordan explained she has been catching up on a backlog of constituent cases. “I definitely understand the importance of relationships. But for me personally, I would never vote for something or not for something based on a relationship. I would vote for or against something based on my values and what the bill or the proposal is about,” she said. “And that’s what should matter in your vote on the One45 project.”
A well-connected developer and a reverend
But council members may be thinking about their relationships on the other side of the negotiating table too. Teitelbaum, the One45 developer, is a longtime player in city politics who was once former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s chief of staff. But he’s also married to Suri Kasirer, whose eponymous lobbying firm brings in more money than any other on the city level. The council’s chief of staff, Jason Goldman, used to work for Kasirer, and the firm was hired to lobby city officials on One45 starting in May 2021, for $120,000 a year.
And One45 has other champions as well. When Teitelbaum’s group bought the land, he said they intended to demolish and build as-of-right – with no need for an upzoning or an onerous ULURP. That building would be 124 feet tall, with just 49 housing units, none of them designated affordable, according to documents submitted to the city. Obviously concerned that the space he rents for NAN headquarters would be lost, Teitelbaum said Sharpton reached out about five years ago. “He told me it was important to the community that NAN not be displaced,” Teitelbaum told City & State. “That meant a lot to me – and frankly, it was one of the reasons I decided to forgo our as-of-right plan, and proceed along a much riskier and uncertain path.”
Out of these conversations came the additional plan to allot space for the Museum of Civil Rights, explained Howard Weiss, who leads the land use practice at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, which is representing the foundation behind the planned museum. Sharpton co-chairs the board, serving alongside other political heavy hitters like former de Blasio deputy mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, progressive activist Allen Roskoff – and Teitelbaum himself.
Sharpton’s office declined to comment, and all the players emphasized that Sharpton, NAN and the museum would all just be tenants – they are not partners on the project. Weiss tried to distance them from any potential controversy. “One would hope that the developers are going to be able to satisfy the community’s concerns and the council member’s concerns in a way that would ultimately result in approval,” he said. “But I’m not in a position to predict where that may go at this point.”
But the importance of Sharpton’s support – even if quiet – can’t be overemphasized. The same day that Richardson Jordan voted against Adrienne Adams for speaker and sent out her letter asking for colleagues to vote against One45, Adams gave a shoutout to Sharpton on the floor of the Council Chambers. He may have been the only person who she thanked for her victory who was not even there in person, and Adams took care to mention that she was a longtime member of NAN. Adams’ office did not respond to a request for comment about One45, and Teitelbaum said he had not yet spoken to her about the project. But while she was running for speaker, Adams’ spokesperson said that she believed the common practice of member deference could be overruled if a project “was for the greater good of the city and supported by a broad coalition.”
The council speaker’s long shadow
The speaker has huge power over what does and doesn’t pass the council, and the council member first quoted here predicted that One45’s approval would come down to whether or not Adams decides the building is worth the battle. “Members aren’t looking for member deference fights. But we’re willing to take them on,” they said.
Richardson Jordan isn’t the only one opposing the project. Patch, which has extensively covered One45’s development, reported that the local community board voted down the building in its advisory vote earlier this month. Next up in the ULURP process is an advisory vote from Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who echoed some of the community board’s concerns about “the number and size of the affordable units and the income targets to be used,” he wrote in a statement provided to City & State. However, “there is a desperate need for affordable housing in Harlem that is accessible to families in the neighborhood. This will be the guiding principle I will focus on as my office reviews this land use proposal."
One45’s ULURP is due to come before the City Council in May or June, but if approval seems unlikely, the developers could pull the application and just build a smaller project as-of-right. Richardson Jordan said she’d prefer that, since it would mean less market rate housing. “The market rate housing is what’s driving up the property values and driving up the cost of living and causing a lot of struggles with congestion in the area and has a big environmental impact.” The effect of new construction on cost of living is hotly debated, though multiple recent reports suggest that building new units has decreased rents in the area, at least in the short term.
“I definitely, definitely believe we need affordable housing. Actually affordable housing to the (Area Median Income) of the district,” Richardson Jordan said. “I’m very interested in working with developers who actually want to do that. Who aren’t motivated by greed but actually have an interest in building housing that is good for the community.”
Teitelbaum said there won’t be another developer, but the as-of-right option is still on the table. “We are not speculators,” he said. “We bought this site to develop it. So I can tell you this: This site will be developed.”
Richardson Jordan seemed to be done negotiating with Teitelbaum, but she was holding out hope for another stakeholder. “If we're talking about Black rights and liberation, that doesn’t come in the form of a museum, that comes in the form of housing,” she said. “Al Sharpton should be over here with us, advocating for an (lower) AMI and full affordability.”