The NY DailyNews reports that this probably isn’t what they mean when they talk about the greening of Harlem.
A prime Harlem lot has become a forest over the past five years, even as development has sprouted around it.
The global economic meltdown of 2009 conspired with the fickle facts of zoning and an apparently “laidback” landlord to keep the southeastern corner of Fifth Ave. and E. 125th St. empty and unoccupied for nearly two decades.
The slow-moving owner, David Israeli, offered little to explain his inaction. He said he’s looking to build a four-story residence with commercial space on the ground floor by early 2016. He wouldn’t elaborate.
“It was downzoned and the market crashed,” Israeli said. “The market is changed; now, we’re going to build.”
The property — once a locus of business activity — has been dormant since he got hold of it, in 1997, after he and others foreclosed on Joseph Holland, who’d held the property for nine tumultuous years before that.
Holland, a state housing commissioner under former Gov. George Pataki, proved a terrible landlord with a lot of ambition.
He ran a homeless shelter a few blocks away, on 128th St., and employed the residents at Harlem’s first Ben & Jerry’s, which he opened on the now-vacant lot with help from the ice cream giants, who waived the franchise fee.
Holland ran a travel bureau there too, and had the famed soul food restaurant La Famille upstairs. But he never managed to rent the top two stories of the building, and his debts mounted.
“Timing is always a tricky thing, but sometimes you can be a trailblazer,” Holland said of his one-time hopes for the site. “But I was told over and over again it was too soon for a project like that in Harlem. It was one of my big disappointments.”
The building was vacant by 1997, and it rotted there for 10 years, until Israeli’s group moved to demolish it to make way for a planned 10-story building with condos and commercial space on the ground floor.
They were just in time for the 2008 rezoning of Central Harlem, which was designed to make way for just their sort of development.
There was bitter local opposition to the rezoning by residents, who protested the changes on grounds they would accelerate gentrification, and destroy the character of the neighborhood.
The zoning changes hampered Israeli, unxepectedly restricting the height of his planned development to 80 feet and forcing him back to the drawing board.
Then the financial crisis shut down construction across the city, and that’s when the lot blossomed. With plants.
Israeli’s plans, as well as his timeline, remain unclear, but his neighbors see the lot as a magnet for graffiti, vermin and crime.
“It just changes the tone of a block, of a neighborhood,” said Nina DeMartini-Day, a managing partner at ddm Development, the affordable housing developer that operates two buildings that flank the corner lot. “It feels empty and unloved.”