Saving The Neighborhood, One Signature At A Time

A arcane provision in the New York City Charter that increases the threshold for a zoning change approval to a three-fourths vote of the city council may help opponents defeat a proposed rezoning of 125th Street in Harlem.

"The City Charter, the document that lays out the rules of city government, has traditionally been the domain of municipal lawyers and few others. Its pages are a tangle of esoteric language and run-on sentences.

But in a decision born of desperation and perhaps a touch of naïveté, a former male model, a human rights lawyer and two law school students plunged headlong into the document on a recent Friday evening as part of an effort to oppose the proposed rezoning of 125th Street in Harlem.

The rezoning, approved by the Planning Commission in March, is intended to remake 125th Street into a regional business hub with office towers and more than 2,000 new units of market-rate condominiums. Opponents say the plan would displace dozens of small businesses, does not offer enough moderate-income housing and does too little to protect the area's historic buildings.

What the group meeting on that Friday came away with was a 110-year-old surprise that more than a few activists have dreamed about over the years: using a clause buried in a city document to try to derail a major project.

To wit, Page 74, Section 200, Subsection 3 of the City Charter says, in so many words, that if signatures opposing a rezoning are obtained from the owners of 20 percent of the property, as determined by square footage, in one of three different areas - the area to be rezoned, the area adjacent to the property being rezoned, or the area "opposite" the property (for example, across the street) - then the City Council must approve the rezoning by a three-fourths vote, instead of by a simple majority.

And the four who found the subsection, members of a group called Voices of the Everyday People, are hopeful that they can prevent the Council from reaching that three-quarters majority on the rezoning."

Full Story: Fighting a New 125th St., Using a 110-Year-Old Law

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