Even the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) wants to move to StreetEasy’s “second hottest neighborhood in Manhattan.” The public benefit organization is seeking multiple East Harlem properties along 125th Street and/or Second Avenue—both for temporary easements and permanent full taking—in the planned expansion of the Q line.

The MTA filed an eminent domain claim to obtain nine East Harlem lots on April 19. Such a process allows the power of the government to seize private property for public use without the owner’s consent in exchange for financial compensation. 

“The filings follow the statutory process laid out in New York law to acquire these parcels, which will allow us to commence this important project for the community of East Harlem,” said MTA spokesperson Michael Cortez in an email statement.

Within the filing, the MTA specifically asks for compensation to be determined by the court instead of a jury. This isn’t necessarily detrimental to maximizing a payout for property owners, according to a 2019 Virginia Law Review study, because appointed commissions are reportedly just as prone to overvaluing condemnations as undervaluing them. But the right to a jury in eminent domain cases is historically contested as a constitutional issue. 

Another attempt to acquire land for the subway line resulted in the Federal Transit Administration’s approval of $82 million in spending to acquire one lot and the space under another. It’s a middle ground. The asking price was more than $100 million. An independent appraiser contracted by the MTA assessed the value at around just $42 million. But this month’s Finance Committee Book admitted that letting such properties slip away jeopardizes the East Harlem extension and would cause “significant incremental project delay and expense.”

Currently, the expansion is in the second phase, which involves building up stations on 106th, 116th, and 125th Street. The project, dubbed the Second Avenue Subway, offers to connect uptown residents to Lower Manhattan, taking them as far south as the Financial District. 

Such an expansion would provide more subway coverage in East Harlem and ease congestion on the existing 4, 5, and 6 lines. Connections to the Metro-North Station at 125th and Park, along with proximity to the M60 bus to LaGuardia Airport, allow New Yorkers to commute out of town more easily. The three new stations are all ADA-accessible—East Harlem’s percentage of the disabled population sits around 13%, according to a 2019 NYU Furman Center tally, slightly higher than the citywide average.

Carey King, who directs East Harlem’s Uptown Grand Central nonprofit, said community members her organization encountered are still digesting the information due to the complicated language. She later told the Amsterdam News one East Harlem small business owner she spoke with was initially concerned about losing his building due to the eminent domain filing. But he was later relieved to learn the MTA just needed temporary access to dig under his building.

Eva Chan, one of the Harlem East Block Association’s managers, says members are excited about the extension, although most do not live on Second Avenue and cannot speak about the direct effects of the land acquisitions. But given 125th Street’s role as a transportation hub, she said expanding on the eastside is a commonsense move. 

“We’re certainly happy that MTA is moving forward,” she said. “It’s not just the MTA; historically, there has been a lack of investment in East Harlem. We see investment in Hudson Yard, we see investment in [downtown] Brooklyn…any sign of progress, we appreciate.”

According to Chan, the area is often cut off from the rest of Harlem. She’s currently unsure whether the train extension will connect the neighborhood with its West and Central counterparts or further independence from them. 

RELATED: The fight for greater transit equity

The proposed East Harlem station will also serve as the end of the line. Such stops are commonly used by city agencies and independent advocacy groups for homeless counts, due to the propensity of unhoused New Yorkers to sleep on the trains, especially during the colder months. East Harlem is also home to the country’s first government-sanctioned safe injection site, where drug use is supervised to prevent overdoses—a process that can be lifesaving, with overdose-reversal medication naloxone on hand. 

But the site has faced stiff community pushback since opening its doors over a year ago, with drug use in nearby subway stations after operating hours pointed out by both the city and the MTA, according to reporting by The City.

Despite the higher rates of addiction disorders among those experiencing homelessness, VOCAL-NY housing coordinator Joseph Loonam said the train extension should actually democratize who visits such Overdose Prevention Centers (OPC). 

“The standard profile we have in our head of someone who is directly impacted by the drug war is often incomplete,” he said. “People have been coming in for services [who] are not necessarily street homeless or are not even necessarily impoverished. Time will tell, [but] what we really want to see [are] OPCs as a normal part of the physical infrastructure in New York. It wouldn’t be super-controversial to have an emergency room [or] clinic next to a subway station. 

“There is a real connection between ‘end of the line’ stops and folks who sleep on the train sort of being in those areas, [but] we’ll be surprised to see who is accessing OPCs as they grow and expand.” 

Loonam added that new government infrastructure is often used as a cudgel against long-time residents of such low-income, traditionally Black and brown neighborhoods with rapidly changing demographics—remember, East Harlem is “Manhattan’s second hottest neighborhood,” according to StreetEasy. Loonam said in a nutshell, such a line boasts nearly universal benefits, but resistance may arise due to fears of displacement and higher rents. 

“Poor folks also deserve access to big transit,” said Loonam. “Poor folks also deserve good schools, and all that stuff is dependent on their ability to stay in a community when resources are comfortable.”

Author’s Note: Additional reporting following publishing.

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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