This week, City Limits moved its offices to the Harlem WeWork co-working space at 8 West 126th Street. Having been headquartered in the Financial District, then Gramercy, followed by Murray Hill and finally Chinatown during our first 42 years of existence (our first edition came out this day in 1976), the new digs are our first ever uptown address.
The new six-story complex, completed in 2016 and developed by Aurora Capital Associates and the Adjmi family, is also home to a number of tenants, including Bed Bath & Beyond, TJ Maxx, New York and Company, and WeWork, which hosts a variety of small companies and non-profits, including ones that serve the Harlem community like Classical Theatre of Harlem and Alliance for Families for Justice. There’s also a vacant storefront and about 30 residential units.
While we’re excited for our new floor-to-ceiling windows and unlimited access to Sylvia’s soul food, we also want to acknowledge that this new building, like Whole Foods down the block, comes with a complex land-use history in a neighborhood that has undergone intense gentrification pressures over the past few decades. It’s always good to know how things came to be the way they are, so here’s what we dug up about the history of our new space.
“Substandard and Unsanitary”
The property’s story is tied up in the saga of the Harlem Urban Development Corporation, the urban agency made defunct by Republican Governor George Pataki in 1995. HUDC, the baby of Harlem leaders like Representative Charles Rangel, Donald Cogsville Sr. and others, was created in 1971 to encourage housing and commercial development in Harlem, but was shut down by Pataki after reports of alleged financial mismanagement and replaced with a new organization, the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
The New York Times, heralding the agency’s demise, wrote in a 1995 editorial that HUDC was “controlled largely by local politicians who sat on its board” and that 125th Street “has seen only marginal commercial improvement” and is “distinguished mainly by swarms of sidewalk vendors.” HUDC founders disputed characterizations of mismanagement, pointing instead to accomplishments fostering mixed-income housing development in the area.
Property records show that in the late 1980s, 8 West 126th Street (better known as 5-15 West 125th Street) was owned by George Kremer, then a resident of Naples, Florida (perhaps the same Kremer who started a foundation for Catholic school children). In 1989 the property was deeded to Himmel-Meringoff Properties, a real-estate investment company.
What happens next is an unusual arrangement: in 1991, Himmel-Meringoff Properties deeded the property to HUDC, and then HUDC leased the property back to Himmel-Meringoff Properties. Later documents also refer to this arrangement as a “ground lease”—with HUDC retaining ownership of the land. A clause in the lease also allowed the tenant—Himmel Meringoff Properties or its future successors—to purchase the property from HUDC. This clause was an incentive for investors, as HUDC’s goal at the time was to bring private money back to Harlem.
“…The area in which the Project is located is a substandard and unsanitary area which tends to impair or arrest the sound growth of New York City,” says a resolution of the HUDC Board of Directors in December 1990. “The Project consists of a plan or undertaking for the replanning, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of the project area and for recreational and other facilities incidental or appurtenant thereto, and; the plan or undertaking affords maximum opportunity for participation by private enterprises…There is a feasible method for the relocation of families and individuals displaced from the Project area into decent, safe and sanitary dwellings which are or will be provided in the Project area or in other areas…”
This urban renewal project of sorts was transferred to the Harlem Community Development Corporation when HUDC went defunct a couple years later.
City Limits was not able to determine by press time exactly what was in the lot in the 1990s—and what made it so unsafe and unsanitary. A 1955 atlas map of the block indicates the presence of three buildings, ranging from one to two stories, fronting 125th Street, and a large vacant lot adjacent to brownstones fronting 126th Street. (However, it appears that in the early 1990s those two brownstones were still considered separate lots.)
Moctar Yara, owner of Yara African Fabric across the street at 2 West 125th Street, says he remembers the area from his days as a street vendor in the early 1990s. He recalls a fish store and some other local stores where our complex is now. Mohammad Mavruk, owner of H&M Art and Home Décor at 17 East 125th Street, says he actually used to be a tenant in one of those smaller buildings. He said he took over from what he recalls was a meat and fish store in the late 1990s—he remembers because it smelled so bad.
Whatever was there, it all came down in the new millennium. In 2004, the building owner applied for demolition work. In 2006, the property showed up on a census of vacant properties taken by the local homeless advocacy organization Picture the Homeless, and by 2007 it’s described as “Vacant Land” under city property records, too.
The property attracted different investors over the years, like the Fata Organization and then Reisman Property Interest LLC. In 2007, Reisman took out $27 million in mortgages, and the following year purchased air-rights from a neighboring property owner for $400,000. The company had plans to build a multi-story hotel, but those plans tanked after the passage of the 2008 125th Street rezoning.
While widely credited with furthering the redevelopment of the corridor and allowing for additional building density, the 125th Street rezoning also included a “contextual rezoning”—to preserve the neighborhood’s existing character—for this particular block, and imposed a new eight-story height limit. Just around the passage of the rezoning, RCG Longview, a company specializing in unconventional real-estate financing, became involved in the property, and eventually exercised its right to buy the property from HCDC for what sources say was a minuscule price. In 2012, RCG Longview sold the property to the Adjmi family and Aurora Capital Associates for $15.5 million.
“One of the last neighborhoods”
“Retailers are seeking new neighborhoods in Manhattan where they can achieve great revenue,” Jared Epstein of Aurora Capital Associates told the Times in 2013. “This is one of the last neighborhoods that has the density of foot traffic that can support their business model.”
He later told the Commercial Observer that TJ Maxx had chosen his building on 125th Street because of “the co-tenancy, the location, the high volume of foot traffic and the proximity to the future Whole Foods complex on Lenox.”
The complex falls within the boundaries of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, created in 1993. BIDs provide enhanced services for a corridor by levying an extra assessment on property owners, and critics say they tend to drive up rents.
Neighbors express a variety of feelings about the development that had replaced what had for a decade been a vacant lot. “It’s very good now, and I’m happy for that,” said Kamara at Macenta Hair Braiding. She was referring to that site and, more generally, the increase of shopping options in Harlem. But some retailers across the street were not as impressed.
“I don’t see any difference,” said Moe Jaba, a manager at Harlem Furniture, who said the development hadn’t brought new foot traffic, and he pointed to the ground-floor vacancy in the building.
Yara said he’d been excited for the hotel plan, which could have brought more traffic but which never materialized. A friend in Yara’s store who asked not to be identified said she missed the way the block used to be and felt the culture of Harlem was disappearing.
From 2000 to 2015, the percentage of Harlem residents who identify as Black declined from 77.3 percent to 54.1 percent, and the number of families making below $20,000 a year declined by over 7 percent. “A lot of people who used to live around can’t even afford living over here,” she said.
Do you know anything about the history of the property at 5-15 East 125th Street? Let us know at zonein.org.