Danforth's Real Solutions

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Be the solution; not part of the problem -- That is the code Steven C. Williams, President of Danforth Development Partners, LLC, lives by.  And the effect of this code is a key element in saving homes and businesses for Harlemites.  I visited with Mr. Williams at his distinguished offices located high in the Empire State Building.  Mr. Williams had sent all of his employees home early for the Easter holiday weekend, which gave me the opportunity to get this inspired interview.  This man has devoted his life to the preservation of his community.

HBN: Mr. Williams, please give us some background about yourself.
Steve Williams: I am a third generation Harlem resident and still live there.  I come from a family history of service to the community.  My father was a physician.  He had a private practice in the building where I live and my mother was a teacher at an all Black private school called The Modern School and it was owned and operated by Ms. Johnson.  My parents lived a legacy of health and education and when I was young I was very concerned about all the negative connotations that the name Harlem evoked and I always saw the veneer of the street corner petty criminals and some of the other illegal activities as not the core of Harlem but at the core of Harlem were the really hard-working African American families who were trying to get ahead and trying to improve the quality of life for their children and for themselves.  In the 1970s and 1980s while people were talking in derogatory terms about African Americans – I would stand on the subway platforms at Lenox Avenue or St. Nicholas Avenue and 125th Street crowded by multitudes of people who were on their way to work or school and because I was a resident, I knew that our people were willing to do anything they could possibly do to earn an honest dollar.  I always tell people that during the snowstorms I could never sleep because people would be ringing my bell wanting to clear snow in the freezing cold to make a few dollars.  So, the work ethic is consistent in African American citizens and it was something that I had no question about.
HBN: I understand that Danforth designed P. Diddy’s house.  
Steve Williams:  Actually, it was an office location of Bad Boy Productions. We designed the main lounge area featuring built in woodwork, hardened walls and ceilings, all with sound sheeting laminated within and over 35 speakers and sub woofing flush mounted in the walls and ceilings.  We also put in security entrances and systems. 

More importantly, right now, Danforth is focused on working with churches, cultural institutions and land owners who are being economically challenged and finding a creative way to unlock the equity so that they can use it constructively to maintain their legacy and to do it in such a way that hopefully they can retain ownership and control of the land or property that they have.  In any rising market in an African American community we often get caught up and lose control of the land that we used to form a community.   It happens in both high-end communities and less historically desirable communities. 

I think one of the things is that, when people talk about the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, and the social reformers and the entertainers and the artists and the educators and authors, people lose sight of the fact that we were tenants.  We never owned Harlem.  And I don’t know this for sure, but I would venture right now that this is the zenith of African Americans owning and controlling real estate in Harlem, in spite of what it looks like. 

And there are a lot of homeowners over the last 20 years – some people who, like I, live in properties that were historically owned by family and some people who have come in through a lot of new programs like the Homestead Program run by HPD and people coming into the new condos.  But even this percentage of ownership is being challenged by the rising prices and the fact that Harlem is such an incredible value.
HBN:  What is your perspective on the gentrification taking place in Harlem?
Steve Williams: I don’t think that gentrification is challenging us.  As real estate prices escalate throughout most of New York City it makes Harlem increasingly more desirable and so there is going to be pressure.  So I think that Danforth’s challenge is to do what we can do to ensure that the historical residents of Harlem remain in place and indeed control a significant part of it. 
HBN: What were some of the challenges you faced being an African American developer in a Caucasian industry?
Steve Williams:  When I was younger, the financial institutions were closed to me.  The brownstones in the mid-1980s were going for about $45 to $55K.  I actually bought my brownstone from my grandmother and first I made it rooming house.  I lived down on the lower two floors and I rented the upper two floors. 

After a few years, I converted it into 4 units and I had people as tenants who were people on the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times and I had a young dentist who was practicing at the Renaissance Health Clinic and they were fabulous tenants and I never had to send out a rent bill.  My rent was paid by check on the 1st of every month. 

When I found opportunities to buy other brownstones, I went to some of the community development units within major banks and asked them for the loans to buy into renovating brownstones.  Their attitude in the mid-1980s was that Harlem was only a place where people on welfare or people who needed subsidized housing wanted to live.  So they thought there were only three and four bedroom apartments and they did not think there was a market rate for housing young professionals.  They asked me to and I produced leases and a rent history and they felt that I had identified a niche market but one that was not viable enough to finance.  So based on that, the brownstones that I purchased, I had to renovate using my own personal funds and as a result, it took exceptionally long to complete some of my projects.
HBN:  How long?
Steve Williams:  Some of the buildings took three years to renovate.  Also during that time was the collapse of Freedom National which had been seen by a lot of people as a source that would have financed those projects.  In today’s world there has been a significant change in access to finance for African Americans, particularly in urban communities, otherwise known as emerging markets. 

Over the course of the last six to seven years there has been an awakening on the part of the financial community and they have come to realize that people in the inner cities want exactly the same things as people in the suburbs.  As a result, Harlem USA was a catalyst that proved that the same businesses that were successful in Harlem are successful in the shopping centers and other commercial districts throughout the city.  For instance: Old Navy has done well, Modell’s has done well and I guess Chase Bank has had active clientele.  The industries that have been challenged like H&M Records or The Disney Theme Store have proved to be unsuccessful.  So there’s a direct parallel standard that the people in urban communities want the same goods and services.
HBN:  You mentioned that today, there is more access to finance for African Americans.  Can you name some institutions our readers can approach?
Steve Williams:  Certainly.  Urban America Fund, Canyon Johnson (which Magic Johnson is affiliated with), Victor McFarland has a fund.  Investors into these funds are pensions, banks, corporations and individuals.  Also, we need to find ways for the community to participate through outreach, making employment and hiring from the community part of project goals.  For instance, in 1997 we needed to find a manager to oversee our properties.  We hired a man by the name of Igwe Harvey – a local manager who had no experience, but we decided to support him and give him a shot.  He was so enthusiastic and took the job.  He stayed with us for 7 ½ years.  A year prior to his leaving, 2005, Mr. Harvey was awarded the BOMA Manager of the Year Award. 

HBN: Please tell us about some of your developments to date and how have they impacted Harlem in its renewal process?
Steve Williams: In 1996, a group of picketers protested the eviction of Sikhulu Shange, owner of the Record Shack on 126th Street.  Shange was being evicted by Fred Harari, the Jewish owner of Freddy’s Fashion Mart at 272 West 125th Street, which was a clothing store.  One Friday of that year, a 51 year old man by the name of Roland James Smith, Jr., a Harlem resident with a criminal record going back 30 years, walked into Freddy's Fashion Mart, pulled out a gun, ordered all the black customers to leave the premises, poured paint thinner on several bins of clothing and set them on fire -- a fire that resulted in killing 8 people, including himself. 

It was quite a tragedy -- a heartbreaking incident.  We were procured to restore The United House of Prayer on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard between 124th and 125th Streets.  We took on the project with a spirit of compassion and respect for the sacredness of the property, which is evidenced by the beauty that the church emanates today.  We restored the building from prior fire damage and reconfigured the premises.  The Church project featured triple height wood and joint ceiling, seating for 1,400 congregants, full kitchen, food prep area and 150-seat dining facility, high security, bullet proofing and broadcast ability.

In partnership with my lifelong Jewish friend, Ross Jacobs of Cogswell Realty Group, (who has been my friend since I was twelve years old), we identified and led negotiations for the purchase of 55 West 125th Street (where Chase Bank is located) and participated in overseeing its major renovation.  When we bought 55 West 125th Street in 1997, it was a distressed property.  The owners operated the property so badly all the tenants wanted to move out.  In order to save money they were not exchanging the air and people were getting headaches. 

Danforth and Cogswell did a comprehensive renovation which included refurbishment of the HVAC system, extensive façade repairs and window tinting and replacement of fire safety systems, a new roof was installed, an array of security and safety upgrades including audio visual security system, new fire life safety system, lobby upgrade including concierge and security desk, we replaced the elevators and put in an emergency generator.  We completed the project in 18 months. 

By the time we finished the building, 70% of the tenants decided to stay and signed new leases.  Later, Congressman Rangel and Debbie Wright of Carver Bank brought Bill Clinton’s staff to see the building.  Naturally, we were pleased that the former President of the United States chose to put his offices in 55 West 125th Street.  It was acknowledged that we had exceeded our goals.

We repeated the same refurbishment process when we purchased 215 West 125th Street from the Harlem Commonwealth Council.  When we bought the building from the Harlem Commonwealth Council, we entered into a 99 year lease with them so that they could have the continued income stream and maintain control of the land.  Those two buildings provide vital services to the community.  55 West 125th Street houses a Social Security office, an Internal Revenue Service office, a Veterans office, and an ACS.  215 West 125th Street houses Renaissance Health Clinic, Workers Compensation Board and the New York State Department of Labor.  During the blackout of 2003, as a result of our emergency generators we were able to walk lighted hallways, the PA system was operating and the elevators were running. We hire locally and use local firms for building maintenance, plumbing and security.
HBN: What’s next for Danforth Development Partners?
Steve Willliams: Our next project is going to be development of the Mount Morris Park Apartments, site of the North General Parking Lot at 121st and 122nd Streets between Park and Madison Avenues.  It will be a multi-use parking garage, space for the Helene Fuld School of Nursing, approximately 120 market rate apartments.  North General will benefit from the purchase price and will return to the parking capacity.  The nursing college continues to grow in size and is a training ground for hundreds of community residents.  The number of minority students is rapidly expanding.  The graduate rate will increase from 250 to possibly 600.

My personal goal is to implement a moderate rate, middle income housing development.  I have talked to a number of community organizations about this objective.
HBN: Mr. Williams, it has been a pleasure talking with you. Your accomplishments have been an inspiration and I thank you for the hope you bring to our future and for sharing this encouraging information with us.
Steve Williams:  Thank you for your interest in Danforth Development Partners.
Contact: Danforth Development Partners, LLC
350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 4818
New York, NY  10118
Telephone: (212) 931-5740
Fax: (212) 931-5744
Website: www.danforthdev.com
Brenda Jeanne Wyche, Advocating for Solutions and Results ©2006, is Special Correspondent for The Black Star News and CEO of Winning Strategies & Associates, a public relations company in New York City.  Contact

To subscribe to or advertise in New York’s leading Pan African weekly investigative newspaper please call (212) 481-7745 or send a note to Milton@blackstarnews.com

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