It’s a real estate struggle over valuable Harlem turf that pits a longtime community group against a downtown gourmet grocery store looking for cheap space. Each has a vision for a former bakery on West 125th Street, and each has tried to convince politicians that they’ll provide what Harlemites need: good jobs and economic growth. Last week, the grocery store won, and the nonprofit may soon be out on its ear.
For the Harlem Restoration Project, it has been a devastating end to hopes born ten years ago, when the group drew up ambitious plans to convert the 130,000-square-foot space on 125th Street into a business incubator that would bring up to 350 jobs to this depressed area. Back in the early 1990s, the city and the quasi-governmental Economic Development Corporation pledged $4 million to the project, which had the backing of most major Harlem politicians.
But the city kept postponing the cash, and the project stalled out, leaving most of the buildings vacant through the 1990s. Last year, the EDC opened the site up again for new bids. “We were surprised at the time,” said Dorothy Vaughn, Director of Operations at Harlem Restoration Project. “We had thought that part of it was all straightened out. But since we had a good plan, we simply submitted it again.”
This time, EDC chose Citarella, the upscale Upper West Side fish store known for its epicurean goods and epic labor battles. Citarella will buy the property for only $850,000, and use the space for food processing, retail and office space, creating about 150 jobs. Because the buildings are within Harlem’s Empowerment Zone, the company may also be eligible for up to as much as $3 million in tax breaks and incentives.
Harlem Restoration tried to rally the support of local politicians, but they ultimately decided to back the grocery: At a hearing last Thursday, the borough president, local community board members and the Manhattan City Council delegations voted to approve Citarella’s plan. The vote was eight in favor, with two abstentions.
“I support Citarella,” said Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, who initially backed Harlem Restoration’s incubator project when she was a member of the City Council. “I think it would certainly add to the resources in this community.” Other sources close to the decision were more blunt, questioning Harlem Restoration’s ability to launch the incubator, and their level of community support.
But Vaughn slammed the politicians, accusing them of furthering the gentrification of Harlem at the expense of locals. “I think it’s sad that even our elected officials aren’t willing to do anything, even though the community is telling them,” said Vaughn, who had collected more than 2,000 signatures in support of her organization.
Now, the nonprofit is fighting off an eviction. Their next court date is at the end of the month, and with only a month-to-month lease they may not be able to hold on much longer. “We have no plans, nowhere to go,” sighs Vaughn. “We’re in a little bit of space, why not let us have that and give the rest of it away?”