News | West Harlem

Construction stalled at Abyssinian-funded building

  • Douglas Kessel / Senior Staff Photographer
    CONSTRUCTION OR OBSTRUCTION? | Work at this Abyssinian Development Corporation-funded building has stalled, and locals are up in arms.

Residents of 123rd Street are up in arms over stalled construction on a development site funded by the Abyssinian Development Corporation.

Locals say that construction on an already-controversial new addition to the Ennis Francis Houses, between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell boulevards, has come to a standstill for the past two weeks, even though the contractor claims construction is continuing.

The dispute comes after a Village Voice article last month detailed new allegations of financial mismanagement at the ADC, a Harlem nonprofit that is heavily involved in real estate and development. Financial irregularities suggest that the organization, which has run an operating deficit in recent years, could have simply run out of money on the construction site.

“Having spoken with people who do construction on the building informally, they have said they haven’t been paid organizationally for months,” Matthew Stillman, a member of the 123rd Street Block Association, said.

“We're not working now,” a worker on the site who asked to remain anonymous said on Tuesday. “It's been shut down for a few weeks.” He said construction had been stopped because of “finance problems.”

The building, which already towers over brownstones up and down the block, was planned as an expansion to the housing complex. 

Now, with construction scheduled to be completed in January, according to signs, it sits empty. On several recent weekdays, 123rd Street remained quiet, with no apparent construction activity. Backhoes and pumps sat unused, planks sat covered in tarps, and the only sound came from the wind blowing on the tarp covering unfinished windows.

Locals say three weeks ago, it was completely different.

“It was really busy every day ... the street was sometimes closed off,” Sheridan Bartlett, a resident of 123rd Street, said. “It had been pretty much nonstop action.”

Brandon Johnson, another resident, said there used to be “loud banging” coming from the site during weekdays and Saturdays. 

“I haven’t been hearing it recently,” he said.

James Frank, a spokesperson for the contractor, A. Aleem Construction, said that construction is still going on, but has slowed down.

“They’re not working outside,” he said. “It’s never really stopped—work is still going on inside.” The lack of noise, he said, is because masons have left the site. 

However, residents said that they haven’t seen any work going on.

Douglas Kessel/ Senior Staff Photographer
JUST LYING THERE | Construction materials at the work site.

Meanwhile, local leaders are divided over what to do about the building. Community Board 10’s land use committee voted unanimously to request more information from ADC, but the board’s executive committee later struck down the resolution for being “out of order.” 

“We just felt it wasn’t our place,” Stanley Gleaton, chair of the executive committee, said. He said the block association should reach out to ADC directly with their concerns.

Joshua Bauchner, a member of the land use committee and the block association, said some members of the executive committee had improper ties to ADC.

“The community board has abdicated its responsibility,” he said. “There’s so much a block association can do.” He said the block association plans to appeal to Borough President Scott Stringer next.

The ADC, one of Harlem’s largest affordable housing developers, appears to be floundering financially. According to tax returns, the corporation made $10.7 million in profit in 2008, but ran a $4.2 million deficit in 2009 after a $15 million drop in “other revenue.” The corporation has been losing money ever since.

The Village Voice article also says the ADC has a history of stalled projects, including an apartment building to replace the Harlem Renaissance Ballroom on 138th Street and an expansion to the Thurgood Marshall Academy announced in 2007.

The ADC did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

Francis Terebo, security staff manager at the Ennis Francis Houses, which are managed by ADC, said that the management of the houses was not associated with the construction.

“The construction has started. They have an obligation to finish it,” he said.

Staff members of Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who, according to the construction signs, supported the project, did not comment by press time.

The new Ennis Francis building was also a source of controversy when the plans were presented to the community in September 2010. At the time, Bauchner said, the building would be much taller than surrounding brownstones, and the ADC was avoiding “a more arduous city review process by presenting the plan in stages rather than all at once.” He and other opponents also voiced concerns about the project’s financial viability.

Sheena Wright, CEO of ADC at the time, said the allegations were misleading and the new building would only be 10 feet taller than the existing brownstones. Wright, who left ADC earlier this year to become the president and CEO of the United Way of NYC, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

On 123rd Street, the new building is now taller than 10 feet over the quaint brownstones, and block residents are not sure when it will be completed.

“It doesn’t look like they’re going to restart anytime soon,” Bauchner said. “Everything bad that we were afraid that would happen ... has happened.”

christian.zhang@columbiaspectator.com  |  @christizhang

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