The New Harlem

Who's Behind the Real Estate Gold Rush and Who's Fighting It?

Abyssinian's Harlem is a little more corporate. The church has worked on dozens of market-rate town houses and mixed-income apartments with major developers. These days, the church, led by Reverend Calvin O. Butts, is developing a multimillion-dollar mall with mega developer Forest City Ratner that will house a Marshall's, a bank, and an H&M clothing store. The mall will be built on the land once slotted for the Harlem International Trade Center. As an HCDC board member, Butts voted against the trade center in accordance with all of Governor George Pataki's appointees, defying the stated aim of hundreds of local Harlem business owners. Abyssinian is also involved in the development of several corporate projects, including a Papa John's Pizza and an International House of Pancakes.

Activist Bailey nearly spits every time she mentions Central Harlem's new Pathmark, or the gourmet Citarella emerging on 125th Street. She works hard to control the rage that can turn shrill when she questions why those who pride themselves on "stabilizing Harlem" are bringing in corporate heavyweights instead of funding local businesses. "Exactly who is the Empowerment Zone empowering?" she asks. Why is it that developers bring in businesses that raise real estate rates, but don't offer jobs that enable people to remain in the community? Abyssinian's Wright says her organization chooses to partner with corporations that provide good benefits, and that ADC offers financial counseling on "how to budget the $11 per hour" that employees will make.

James Simmons, a senior vice president at UMEZ, was clearly annoyed at the Schomberg town meeting when the crowd fired questions on an open mic about his organization's role in the housing crisis. The former investment banker explained with frustration that UMEZ's "mission" does not involve housing, it is to bring about new business and employment. UMEZ has become the favorite punching bag of many Harlemites since it has been publicized that the number of locally owned businesses receiving funding is dwarfed by corporate franchises like Time Warner's Disney Store. The people working in those stores, Simmons said, are happy to have a job and are not the ones complaining.

Nellie Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants Council, one of the activists fighting displacement of low-income residents
photo: Robert Hale
Nellie Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants Council, one of the activists fighting displacement of low-income residents

It's hard to think those involved in business and housing development are not linked and working toward similar goals of a corporate-run, upper-middle-class Harlem, say activists. HCCI's McEwan jokes, "There are those who will have you believe that the city purposely allowed landlords to abandon buildings so we could take the buildings and control Harlem. It's ridiculous." She is not totally off. Many a housing activist has at least quipped about that very conspiracy. Still, most argue that the development on every front has been spearheaded by a small group of planners who are all linked in some way. And they point to those who are career "Harlem builders". McEwan worked at HPD, then as the attorney for UMEZ before becoming HCCI's CEO. Her old boss, former HPD commissioner Deborah Wright, who began her career at the NYC Housing Partnership when it was very involved in Harlem's redevelopment, later went on to direct UMEZ. She is now the president and CEO of Carver Bank, which approves business and home loans in Harlem. Wright refused an interview with the Voice. There are dozens of others who have jumped from board to board, making crucial decisions about this community.

The concern isn't as much with résumé building as it is with the lack of objectivity in choosing the kinds of developers who will ultimately own Harlem. So far, the developers who have received property from the city or have partnered with organizations like HCCI aren't exactly community-based. The Gotham Organization, which received subsidies and loans from UMEZ to build Harlem USA as part of a partnership, also received land and property from HPD to develop at least 150 condominium units, 37 rental units, and almost 35,000 square feet of retail space. The company owns numerous luxury-apartment skyscrapers throughout Manhattan, mostly on the Upper West and East sides.

The Richman Group, listed by the National Multi Housing Council as one of the top 50 companies owning the most apartments in the country, is working on at least two major projects with building and land from HPD. Related Companies, which is on the top 50, is best known for creating AOL Time Warner's new Columbus Center at Columbus Circle. Most developers who have received subsidies or huge tracts of land for $1 have been given 20-year tax incentives to keep rents and mortgages affordable.

But in 20 years, when tax credits lift or when co-op values shoot through the roof, McEwan admitted, that's the Harlem people may need to be concerned about. Then again, she said, there could be "another wave of abandonment." That's reason enough to continue stabilizing development, she said.

If Harlem activists are looking for a politician to champion their low-income housing cause, C. Virginia Fields's office may not be the place to turn. A former Harlem councilmember, Fields has been a strong tenant advocate over the years. Recently, she has worked on reviving Frederick Douglass Boulevard, on which she plans to spend at least $3.5 million from her capital budget developing 16 sites. Most of the units will be middle- and moderate-income housing based upon HPD's middle-income standards. Harriet Tubman Gardens, for instance, a complex of 73 units developed by the Queens-based Bluestone Organization, is available for tenants whose income "can't exceed $97,500"—that's 165 percent of the area median income. Fields did not return calls to the Voice.

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