A public hearing on a proposed new development in Harlem turned rambunctious Thursday evening, as residents argued that the National Urban League’s plan to move its headquarters back to Harlem would increase gentrification.
The proposed 400,000-square-foot building would include a civil rights museum, affordable housing, and office and retail space, in addition to the headquarters of the league, a prominent civil rights organization.
It would replace a parking garage and five small businesses on 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards.
Officials behind the project—which is getting funds from the state and city—say it will create new jobs and bring tourism to the area.
But locals and elected officials at the meting said they felt that the very organization created to advocate for Harlem residents was just adding to the neighborhood’s gentrification. State Senator Bill Perkins, who represents the area, accused the league of “selling out” by replacing small businesses.
“They did business on this block when nobody wanted to do business on this block,” Perkins said of the business owners. “We need to make sure that their trials and tribulation and faith in this community is acknowledged and not stepped on.”
Several business owners at the meeting said they were unsatisfied with what the league was offering them: a $250,000 loan and assistance in finding a new location. They questioned why the league didn’t buy out the businesses or compensate for relocation costs, instead of just letting their leases run out.
“At this point, everyone involved in this project will be making a profit, but we will be left with nothing,” said Lakisha Benbow, the wife of Joseph Benbow, who owns the seafood restaurant Fishers of Men, which will be forced to move. “They say they’re offering help but they haven’t explained anything or gave him any details.”
“This is what we have been waiting for, and now we are the ones being forced out,” Benbow added.
League officials emphasized the historical significance of the prominent organization—which is currently located in the Financial District—returning to its roots in Harlem, and the role that the project will play in employing Harlem residents and in attracting investment in the community.
“I think it’s time for there to be a great civil rights museum right here in Harlem,” Marc Morial, the league’s president and CEO and the former mayor of New Orleans, said. “We're going to do a project that benefits the community and we're going to include minority-owned businesses in every aspect of the project.”
But the majority of the community members raised a variety of issues with the proposal. Some questioned whether the housing in the complex will go to locals or cater to higher income people from out of the neighborhood.
According to the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency involved with the project, 30 percent of the 114 housing units will be rented to households with less than 130 percent of the area’s average income, while 20 percent would be to those with less than 50 percent.
“When I look at Harlem, I want to make sure that we have a seat at the table in our own house,” said Melba Wilson, who owns a restaurant in the area.
While many of those who spoke agreed that it would be nice to have the league headquarters in Harlem, none of the attendees said they actually supported the new development.
First announced in February, the building will be jointly developed by the league, Hudson Companies, and BRP Development. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have both expressed support for the project.