Inverted High Line A Miracle at La Marqueta?

April 8, 2012

An upside-down High Line — using gritty railroad tracks to create a dazzling new destination for tourism, commerce and recreation — may be coming to Harlem.

State economic development officials are about to test the feasibility of converting a mile-long strip beneath the Metro-North tracks into an open-air market offering food, arts and crafts and culture, the Daily News has learned.

The Harlem Community Development Corp. (HCDC) is preparing a request for proposals to study how the desolate, 22-block stretch under the Park Avenue Viaduct can become a thriving hub for 900 vendors, artisans and mini-businesses.

Known as “La Marqueta Mile,” the $50 million project would run from 111th St. to 132nd St., transforming what is now an ugly industrial streetscape best known for its vacant lots, fenced-off parking and stalking posts for muggers.

In its place, state officials envision hundreds of little “jewelboxes” — stalls and kiosks ranging from 80 to 160 square feet — that would house mom-and-pop businesses on a 55-foot-wide promenade under the elevated tracks.

Imagine the High Line turned on its head: Instead of a ribbon of park resting atop an abandoned railbed, a swath of Park Avenue devoted to shopping, strolling and courting would sit below an active commuter railroad.

La Marqueta Mile would also serve as a jobs magnet, with some 4,000 local residents employed at 900 micro-companies.

“The idea is to transform this part of Park Avenue from a back alley that repulses investment into a vibrant Main Street that attracts it — and keeps all the dollars in the community,” says HCDC Director of Planning Thomas Lunke.

In early May, the agency will release a promotional video and launch a new Web site, It will soon seek bidders for a feasibility study and pick a consultant, though it’s not clear exactly when the RFP will be issued.

The project could move forward as early as next year.

But obstacles abound, people familiar with the project confirm:

l Funding from public and private sources hasn’t been lined up yet, and costs are estimated at $2.1 million per block.

l While the state is advancing the plan, the city owns the 230,000-square-foot site and has final say over its use.

l The historic La Marqueta, on Park between 111th St. and 116th St., has struggled for decades to attract tenants and customers, and four of the market’s original six buildings have been demolished.

La Marqueta Mile borrows the brand name of the original La Marqueta, an indoor mart built by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s to get pushcarts off city streets. The new plan expands its scope and moves it outdoors from indoors.

“Of course it’s ambitious — it’s a mega-project — but if we didn’t have ambition, Harlem wouldn’t be the center of the universe and God’s green Earth,” says Assemblyman Keith Wright, the HCDC chairman who represents the area.

Despite hurdles, support is growing. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer hails it as “innovative” for reclaiming unused space and providing healthy food, small business opportunities and open public land.

The city’s Economic Development Corp., which has been renovating the original La Marqueta and recently added a kitchen incubator, says it will work with HCDC “once they determine the feasibility of their project.”

The city Department of Transportation, which controls about two thirds of the site, calls the Mile a “creative way to enliven an underutilized public asset” and “create healthy, pedestrian-friendly environments.”

La Marqueta Mile also has a secret weapon: Irwin Cohen, who developed Chelsea Market in the 1990s, is serving as unpaid advisor. And he’s got a story for skeptics who doubt the project will ever get built.

“When I started Chelsea Market, my accountant told me I was going to lose all my money and could wind up in a mental institution,” he says. “He was wrong, and anyone who doubts La Marqueta will be proven wrong, too.”

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