The proposed National Urban League development on 125th Street promises to bring jobs and investment to Harlem, but the businesses occupying the current site say they want better compensation if they will be displaced.
State Sen. Bill Perkins convened with the owners of businesses in the existing building on 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard Tuesday afternoon to petition Gov. Cuomo—who backed the project proposal in Februrary—to accommodate them in the new building’s plans.
“I wanted to bring them here, because they embody the spirit of Adam Clayton Powell,” Perkins said. “They have turned a strip that was desolate and abandoned into one that is bustling.”
Plans for the new building, which will house the new headquarters of the League, a national civil rights organization, have attracted much controversy in the past month. Members of the organization, along with developers, say the project will create thousands of jobs and attract new businesses and investment to Harlem. But at a heated community hearing earlier this month, local residents said the development plan would leave the long time businesses behind.
“People thought I was crazy to come open a business down here,” Ronnie Walton, the owner of Golden Krust franchise, said. At the time, he said there was only an empty parking lot next door, and he had to put rat poison out every night to control the pests.
Now, “Golden Krust has a thriving business,” Dorthey Davis, who has lived in Harlem since the early 1960s, said. “People like that type of food. That is what they want.”
According to Perkins, displacing businesses like this one sends the message that hard work doesn’t pay off. Perkins and the business owners he has worked with are not opposed to the Urban League coming to Harlem, but they do not want it to do so at the expense of local institutions.
“It’s not that we’re against what they are trying to do—we just want to be a part of it,” Joseph Benbow of Fishers of Men II said.
The proposed development would include a Civil Rights museum, affordable housing units, and office and retail space. Currently, five percent of the space would be set aside for local businesses, and the displaced businesses would receive a $250,000 loan to help with relocation costs. The project is planned to create 1,250 to 1,500 construction jobs per year and 250 to 400 permanent jobs.
Instead of a loan, Raj Wahdwa, owner of the Sarku Japan store, said he wants either an offer to remain in the building after its completion or money to help relocate.
The petition that Perkins started already has over 1,000 signatures, but opinion among community members remains mixed. On Monday, Pastor Johnnie Green Jr. of the Mount Neboh Baptist Church on 114th Street sent an open letter to National Urban League President Marc Morial expressing support for the project.
“Building a new world-class facility on 125th Street in Harlem is an affirming step that the National Urban League mission continues in the 21st century,” the letter said.
“They [the National Urban League] have every right to belong here,” Natlynn Haywood, a jewelry vendor who grew up in Harlem, said.
Other residents are more concerned about a wider trend of development and displacement.
“The neighborhood is gone. It’s not a neighborhood,” Muta Allah, a street vendor on 125th Street, said. “It’s not just businesses. They don’t want vendors. They’re breaking up the community.”
“It’s bad for the community because Harlem needs businesses,” Diafar Serbou, another street vendor, said.
Perkins said his main concern was the lack of community outreach during the planning process.
“This was a back room deal, so to speak,” Perkins said. “The community didn’t get wind of it in an adequate amount of time and they [the businesses owners] didn’t get wind of it in an adequate amount of time.”
“The community didn’t know anything about this until the senator, Bill Perkins, informed us,” Walton said.
On Nov. 7, the New York Daily News published an article quoting unnamed officials within the National Urban League who said that the opposition has led them to reconsider moving to Harlem.
Latraviette Smith, a League spokesperson, said that the plans were still very “preliminary” at this time.
A statement released by the League said that “many of the specific details regarding the project are yet-to-be-confirmed as the plans are being finalized in the next several months,” but described the plans as an “opportunity to come home and help create jobs, contribute to community and participate in the ongoing revitalization of 125th Street.”
Perkins just thinks the businesses who helped revive Harlem should be properly compensated.
“They discovered 125th Street and made it work. They can be given credit for the fact that the street is safe,” he said. “Harlem is hot. They made it hot.”