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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Pave a parking lot, put up paradise

A vacant lot.

A vacant lot. Photo Credit: Mark Chiusano

For what it's worth, the lot is relatively neat and tidy, only an empty Tropicana bottle and a Rice Krispies wrapper rolling in the wind behind a "No Dumping" sign. Piles of broken concrete slabs lie in the middle, and graffiti on the adjacent building says "Harlem 2K15." It's a vacant lot, one of more than 1,100 vacant properties owned by NYC, according to a recent report by city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

In the middle of a changing neighborhood in Harlem, the site has been in city hands since 1972. It's two blocks from an express subway station.

"It's a damn shame," says Sidney Morris, 57, shaking his head at the lot.

"We need better housing," says Thomas Irby, 50, who works at the parking lot across the street.

After 50 years, it might happen -- if you're optimistic.
    
Empty space in New York?!

It may seem surprising that there is any vacant land left in New York City, especially in Manhattan. Everything is too crowded. If only we could start over again with the subway, Rikers and the affordable housing system, city planners bemoan.

The gist of the Stringer report is that, in fact, in a very limited way, the city can.

Even ignoring the many vacant sites difficult to build on, from the perspective of the city, or those that have been promised to other city departments -- the NYPD, for example -- but not acted upon, there are hundreds of sites where construction is possible.

For a mayor bent on creating new affordable housing, this should be a godsend. It represents a modest opportunity for new, permanent housing, with fewer of the restrictions inherent in preserving older affordable units, or in the mayor's complex rezoning initiatives. The de Blasio administration says it's already making progress on some of the sites outlined in Stringer's report -- and it's worth noting here that the comptroller clearly stands to gain politically by criticizing the mayor. The administration contends that construction must be undertaken with careful community approval, which will certainly be good news to community boards citywide that are hammering the mayor for his rezoning plans.

But the more construction the better, particularly if that means streamlining the development process and keeping better tabs on available land. The longtime vacant lot at West 126th Street is a good example. According to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the lot was slated for commercial development with another city agency, the Economic Development Corporation, during the Bloomberg administration. The department had no further information about the life of the lot before or during that time. Under de Blasio, HPD asked for it back for affordable housing development.

In November, the city issued a request for proposals for development to minority and women-owned businesses. Proposals were due last week, and a few have been received.
    
Don't miss this opportunity

Today, vacant lots are an eyesore and a missed opportunity. But over the city's history, they've been much more potent than that.

On a recent afternoon, Raymond Jennings, 52, stands on the corner of 126th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard with his back to the vacant lot, trying to stay in the sun. He lives in the Bronx but says he "comes back every so often to see how 125th has changed." When he was young, he says, the area was dotted with vacant lots: "empty space" on the side streets, and just a few storefronts on the avenues.

Jennings says he was homeless for 11 years. One morning, sleeping on a bench in nearby St. Nicholas Park, a social worker shook him awake. The social worker kept coming back. Eventually, he got Jennings on the road to housing -- first an SRO, then something more permanent.

"I would like to see more housing go up," he says, though he figures the vacant lot would turn into condos, like everything else in New York City.

Maybe he'll be proven wrong.

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