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Urbanism II: Remaking Harlem
July/August 2008

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

Development in New York is a bloodsport. The stakes are high but the barriers to entry are low—anyone is free to speak, however extreme.

Nowhere is this truer than Harlem, where the ghosts of great black New Yorkers—Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, W.E.B. DuBois, and dozens more—haunt the streets. But unlike other iconic neighbourhoods, such as Greenwich Village or Brooklyn Heights, Harlem has long had far less investment than it needs.

Take 125th Street, the famous African-American commercial corridor that runs the width of Harlem, from the East River to the Hudson.

Despite a few successes—a $350m (€222m) retail investment by ex-NBA star Magic Johnson, new chain stores—the street's comeback is far from certain. Restaurants close, leaving empty space.

When the Bloomberg administration proposed re-zoning 125th Street for mixed-use development, there was an angry response. The local community board argued against any residential development, saying it would drive out small retail businesses. In fact, it would get them customers. Planning chair Amanda Burden finally got the 125th Street proposal passed in April, but the Bloomberg administration will have to set aside about 46 per cent of the proposed 3,858 new apartment units for families on low income. Height limits on new builds have been reduced from 29 stories to 19.

"Well, the Old Harlem, which wants to keep everything frozen in time, fears the New Harlem," says Faith Hope Consolo, chair for retail real estate at Prudential Douglas Elliman. "Harlem needs more bodies. If there's no one living upstairs, there's no one to shop downstairs."

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Rethinking Development.

©2008 Monocle


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