Harlem Project Moves Forward Despite Opposition

November 21, 2013

urban league bldgA little-known state board approved the acquisition of the needed land over the objections of a state senator and four business owners who could be forced to move.

The Public Authorities Control Board unanimously approved the transfer of the 42,000-square-foot site at 121 West 125th Street in Harlem from the city and the air rights above it from the state to the Empire State Development Corp.

The board also gave permission for ESDC to enter into a 99-year lease with the Urban League Empowerment Center, the project developer.

ESDC has committed $2 million to be used for demolition of the existing 160,000 square-foot four-story building on the site.

It will be replaced by a $225 million, 466,000-square-foot building that will house the National Urban League headquarters and include other office, housing, retail and community space.

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The National Urban League headquarters is currently in lower Manhattan and had considered moving to Washington D.C.

Instead, it will relocate to West 125th Street–long considered the Main Street of Black America.

State Sen. Bill Perkins, the Harlem Democrat who represents the area, complained that the developers were proceeding with little regard for businesses that had invested time and money in the site for years.

He said many of the existing business owners  “located in what was once a desert” and have since made it an “oasis.”

“This project as currently conceived casts these pioneers aside,” Perkins said, before specifically criticizing Gov. Cuomo for pushing a plan that showers “everyone else with sweetheart deals.”

Four of the existing business owners were given the unprecedented  opportunity Wednesday to address the Public Authorities Control Board, which never before allowed public to comment. Several said they didn’t oppose the project, but simply wanted to be part of it.

After they spoke, the three voting board members, which include representatives  of Cuomo and the Assembly and Senate majorities, unanimously approved the plan.

“Empty,” Joseph Benbow, owner of Fisher of Men seafood restaurant said when asked his reaction afterward.

Added Massamakan Tounkara, owner of Kaarta Fabrics: “I don’t have life now.”

During the hearing, ESDC Chief of Staff Mehul Patel, insisted none of the tenants are being evicted. He said all the project will proceed after their leases are up in 2015 and insisted they will be given priority consideration for future retail space at the site.

If they do move, they will receive free real estate relocation services, legal assistance for reviewing new leases, marketing support, and a $250,000 relocation loan or grant.

The state, Patel said, is “committed to continue to working with each of the existing tenants to not only ensure they stay in business, but help them stay in the community.”


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