When the city pushed ahead with a controversial rezoning plan for East Harlem in 2017, the de Blasio administration made a promise: to find a permanent home for the people, equipment and trucks that handle the neighborhood’s trash.
The neighborhood’s sanitation garage at 343 E. 99th St. and First Avenue has been partially unusable since 1988. That’s when the exterior wall of the two-story 1920 building was deemed “compromised,” according to a 2017 land use report from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
Today, the garage is wrapped in scaffolding and, because it is structurally unsound, the Department of Sanitation can’t store equipment in the building’s top floor.
The city’s unofficial “Trash Museum” is housed there, as well, but “concerns about the structural integrity” of the building are among the reasons the 40,000-item collection is not open to the public, according to DSNY spokesperson Joshua Goodman.
But the department still uses the garage as a base, parking sanitation trucks and snow plows in an open lot next door and on adjacent streets next to Metropolitan Hospital, the First Avenue bike lane and a public school, prompting complaints from neighbors.
Nearly four years after the November 2017 pledge from City Hall to find a permanent new trash facility, plans for the East 99th Street property are unclear — and locals believe an effort underway to build a temporary home for local trash operations is, on the whole, rubbish.
“With all of the activism that has gone back to the Young Lords, decades ago, we still don’t have proper sanitation services,” said East Harlem resident Marie Winfield, alluding to the Puerto Rican activist group that burned uncollected trash during the 1969 Garbage Offensive to draw attention to the area’s neglected streets.
An ‘Environmental Justice Issue’
Winfield is a member of a “DSNY community advisory board” convened with the department after the 2017 rezoning to address the trash issue in the neighborhood, currently home to two separate facilities — the East 99th Street garage and another on East 130th Street and Park Avenue — for both East and Central Harlem’s sanitation districts.
The goal of the group is to identify a place for “an enclosed, consolidated DSNY sanitation facility,” according to the 2017 Points of Agreement memo made as the City Council and mayor greenlit the rezoning plan.
Despite quarterly meetings between the board and DSNY for the past four years, however, there are no current plans for meeting that target, Winfield said.
“It’s just a continued environmental justice issue where other communities are, somehow, getting relief from these types of conditions, and fancy new garages,” she said, citing a $200+ million, LEED Gold-certified sanitation facility on Spring Street and the West Side Highway completed in 2015 that serves three downtown Manhattan districts.
That facility, now cheered by some as an architectural marvel, was not always welcome. It took years to complete and had to overcome a lawsuit from James Gandolfini and others over a decade ago to get across the finish line.
A Quick Fix?
A temporary fix is in the works, however, to allow the Department of Sanitation to move out of its current East Harlem garage at 343 E. 99th St. into a new garage being built at 217 E. 127th St. Goodman said it is slated to be finished within the next year and the department plans to move in next fall.
But Winfield said the East 127th Street space was presented to locals as a stop-gap measure. In a 2013 letter to Manhattan’s Community Board 11, the sanitation department acknowledged “this solution may not be perfect” and in 2017, a DSNY representative described it as “temporary,” DNAinfo reported.
DSNY’s lease with the owner of the lot, Potamkin Development, is for 20 years. And it will only house equipment for East Harlem’s sanitation district, but will leave Central Harlem’s facility at East 130th Street and Park Avenue intact, according to the department.
When complete, the new garage will not be fully enclosed, and is about half the size of the Spring Street facility, Brewer’s land use report said. The borough president voted against it in 2017, as did the local community board
Shawn Hill, a Harlem resident and a member of the DSNY community advisory board with Winfield, worries that, once it’s built, the new 127th Street garage “will remain for generations,” despite the 20-year lease.
“If you look at how deteriorated the city allowed the East 99th Street garage to become before they decided to move out, if you project that on to the East 127th Street facility, you can see how many decades it will take before they will initiate any change,” he said.
Goodman said the sanitation department has been working for years to identify a space for a combined garage that can house equipment and staff for both District 11 in East Harlem and District 10 in Harlem “for the long term.”
Each district employs nearly 60 workers, and maintains dozens of trucks, plows and other vehicles, DSNY records show.
He added that sanitation facilities across the city are “in a state of crisis as a result of decades of disinvestment.”
“We have worked over the last eight years to secure funding to replace, rehabilitate and repair the most dire facilities, including the existing Manhattan 11 Garage on East 99th Street that is woefully undersized and structurally compromised,” he said.
Hill said locals on the board and DSNY are ultimately working for the same thing.
“DSNY would love to have a state-of-the-art facility. They want that. The issue is a political one. Will the mayor, will City Council, allocate the funds?” he asked.
In City Hall’s rezoning commitment tracker — a document prepared yearly by the Mayor’s Office of Operations — the project is listed with a time frame between 2017 and 2027, but without any earmarked cash. The column for funding reads “N/A.”
Councilmember Diana Ayala, who represents East Harlem, did not respond to inquiries from THE CITY. Inquiries to City Hall and Council Speaker Corey Johnson office were also not returned.
Barely Notice The Smell
The city has deemed the East 99th Street facility is unsound for more than 30 years — longer than local Christina Vega has been alive.
The 29-year-old mother of two spoke to THE CITY as she crossed the street outside the garage with her young daughters walking from school on a recent weekday afternoon. She said she barely notices the odor of the place anymore, or the dozens of garbage trucks parked along the street.
“I’ve lived here my whole life so I’m used to it,” she said with a laugh. “The smell — you don’t even notice it no more. I think it’s embedded in my nose.”
It’s hard for her to imagine what could replace it.
The future of the garage and its adjoining parking lot is unclear. The garage is built on property belonging to NYC Health + Hospitals, so Goodman said “it would revert to their portfolio” when DSNY leaves.
Health + Hospitals officials did not respond to an inquiry about the future of the property.
Two adjacent lots at 1933 and 1943 First Avenue are currently owned by DSNY. The properties will be transferred to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the city agency that manages all public property, when DSNY moves out, Goodman said.
Squeezing Private Property
Records show that the lot in between those two city properties, however, is privately owned by a limited liability corporation controlled by Extell Development, one of the largest development companies in the city.
The developer bought the 40-by-100-foot lot sandwiched among the city-controlled properties on the prime corner parcel for $7.1 million on Nov. 22, 2017, property records show. Eight days later, the City Council approved the East Harlem rezoning.
A spokesperson for Extell, Anna LaPorte, said the company “has no current plans for the site.”
Winfield, a housing law professional who is studying the East 99th Street site and Harlem’s Lincoln Correctional Facility as part of the A’Lelia Bundles program at Columbia University, said she is concerned about the property’s future.
At the most recent DSNY community advisory board meeting, held in May, a representative of the department said Extell has made inquiries to the city about what officials plan to do with its property on the East 99th Street corner, Winfield recalled.
She said during the rezoning conversations leading up to 2017, it was always the plan to “return those sites to community use” — for affordable housing, or perhaps clinical space for neighboring Metropolitan Hospital.
“We definitely don’t want … where this, in the end, ends up going to some other private use and not towards the community,” she said. “The rezoning commitments need to be taken seriously by this administration, and the next administration.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the new sanitation facility on Spring Street and the West Side Highway cost $20 million to build. It will actually cost between $200 and $300 million, according to the Sanitation Department. The $20 million price tag is just for a salt shed on the south side of Spring Street.