Gentrification: Benefits And Challenges

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Cross’ pricing for individual condominium units range from $377,000 for an alcove studio to $1.3 million for the penthouse, Johns says. Other comparable units by other developers range, respectively, from $735,000 to $2 million.

 

(Arleatha’s Lounge has a towering new neighbor. Signs of the new Harlem? Photo credit: Neha Singh Gohil ).

"Friendliness� is the first word that comes to mind the minute you stroll into Arleatha’s Lounge, a bar on 123rd Street in Harlem.
Neighbors from surrounding brownstones trade jokes over the R&B music blasting from a stereo as they watch the news on television. However, you won’t stay long before you here people in conversations about the G-word; yes, gentrification is a troubling topic for patrons at Arleatha’s, as it is in other West Harlem establishments.

Between gulps of his Silver Patron, a third generation Harlem native, who would only give his name as Don. W., explains that he’s got nothing against change or development. He thinks they’re “wonderful things.� Still, he’s concerned that generations of long-time Harlem families are being “eliminated� by the trend. He worries that the change will “push people out by force� instead of allowing them a “good chance to stay� if they wished.       

Arnold Torrence, the 43-year old owner of Arleatha’s, agrees with Don. Still, when he thinks about the new condominium building going up next door to the bar, he adds: “It’ll be good for business.�       

Their debate epitomizes the two sides of what some have labeled Harlem’s Second Renaissance. Proponents of change claim the economy grows steadily, an improvement that supposedly works in everyone’s favor. Those resisting the trend, including local historian Michael Henry Adams, decry a “hurricane of greed,� responsible for displacing hundreds of African Americans from the neighborhood.

The gentrification of Harlem has largely come in the form of luxurious new residential buildings, popping up along the area’s busiest arteries and its pretty, tree-lined streets. Many of the new developments, critics contend, are priced out of reach for Harlem’s traditionally middle and low- income families.   

Amidst the controversy, at least one new landlord claims to be getting it right. Developer John Cross is renovating the old Dwyer Warehouse into a residential loft condominium complex. So far, he’s managed to dodge criticism of the project by people like Don W. and Adams by making some key choices about how to build and target his project.       

Cross’ plans are based on a Harlem landmark, the old O’Reilly furniture warehouse, that had been neglected for at least the past 20 years. The original building at 258 St. Nicholas Ave. was built in 1890, and designed by architect Cornelius O’Reilly himself. In those days, the warehouse dominated the landscape, establishing what the Landmarks Preservation Commission referred to as “a prominent visual terminus on the vista� in a 1980s survey of Harlem’s historical sites.

The New York Times reported that the O’ Reilly family sold the building in 1959, after which it was abandoned, ultimately reverting to the City of New York for taxes. By the time Cross took over in 2002, the roof had fallen in and cinder blocks covered the now-empty windows. The warehouse was attracting crime and had become a physical danger for local residents.

Photos taken before its demolition depict the nine-story warehouse intact with its staggered walls of yellow stone. Red and orange brick surrounds set off the doorways and parts of the roof. A sharp angled bay window on the street corner rose over the structure to a turret.

Aaron Donovan, of New York transportation blog Startsandfits.com, described the building as a reminder of “a time, before the automobile made buildings things to be whizzed,� pass “at 40 miles per hour, that people cared enough about the places where they lived to decorate them so lovingly.�

In a nod to its history, Cross is using some of what’s left of the unique architecture in his plans for the condos. Although the warehouse was completely demolished before new foundations were laid, sketches of the loft building show hexagonal windows on the corner, nearly identical to the originals.

Cross’ architects have used a similar red brick design. The exposed walls of yellow stone are replaced wholesale with sheets of glass to let in more light, but a portion of the original façade remains intact. The site supervisor explained that it will be “stitched� into the new front of the building. The planned complex is the same height as the old warehouse, with a tenth story roof deck for residents in place of the original courtyards.

Along with Harlem’s past, Cross is thinking about Harlem’s future. He’s planning for 6,100 square feet of commercial space and a basement devoted to public theatre and cultural events, according to his broker, Denice Johns.

There is some community support. The space will truly involve the community in the building, says Yasmine Cornelius, district manager of Community Board Ten. She admits the loft concept is new in Harlem, a neighborhood largely made up of four story turn-of-the-century townhouses. But, she explains, this could set an example for other developments in the neighborhood by encouraging projects that serve Harlem’s re-emerging arts community. The building sits a few blocks away from such legendary jazz venues as Minton’s Playhouse, which re-opened this summer.

Perhaps most importantly, Cross took the considered step of putting together a team of locals to help him fulfill his vision. According to Cornelius, Cross himself is from Harlem, as is Johns, his chosen real estate agent. This carefully molded team flies in the face of other projects in the area, such as Harlem’s Studio Museum, which reportedly did not use any African American firms in their planning.

Cross’ pricing of the property has also helped him dodge the traditional attacks against gentrification. Prices for individual condominium units range from $377,000 for an alcove studio to $1.3 million for the penthouse, Johns says. Other comparable units by other developers range, respectively, from $735,000 to $2 million.

By opening up the condominiums to the market instead of setting income caps or other similar measures, Cross is trying to get a mix of people and uses for his space, she told the author. In discussing gentrification of the area, Cornelius explains, “A lot of people don’t fit in the market of low income and would like to remain in or move back to Harlem, and those opportunities should be afforded to them as well.� This is precisely what Johns says is happening. According to her, a number of longtime residents of Harlem – mostly attorneys, doctors and entertainers – are buying the units because they want to live in a loft space but stay in their old neighborhood.

Work on the Dwyer condominiums is expected to finish by June 2007. Johns says that the building, marketed largely by word of mouth alone, is already selling itself. Cross’ careful development of the Dwyer Warehouse seems to have charmed his most reluctant neighbors.

Back at Arleatha’s, Torrence’s nephew, Eric, will advise you to buy a unit now, before the prices go up. Cornelius too endorses the condos, saying they’re “well worth it� and a “great fit� in the community.

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