Embattled Corn Exchange Developer Will Fight for Harlem Landmark
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The woman originally given control of the landmarked Corn Exchange Building in East Harlem says she still hopes to win the building back from the city and build a culinary school.
Ethel Bates, 80, lost control of the building to the city's Economic Development Corporation in 2009 after she was unable to develop the $9 million nonprofit culinary institute that she proposed when awarded title to the building in 2003. Bates has appealed the New York State Supreme Court decision, but the city issued a request for expressions of interest last month.
"We are not going to give it up," Bates told members of Community Board 11 Monday. "The culinary institute is something we need in this community."
Bates, who has no previous development experience, was unable to find a developer to partner with on the project. She says she has spent more than $300,000 of her own money trying to redevelop the project. Nevertheless, the building fell into further disrepair.
In 2009 — to the dismay of historic preservationists — the top floors of the structure were dismantled after being deemed a safety hazard by the Department of Buildings. The building is now a two-story nub.
Bates says she is currently in negotiations with three developers regarding projects at the building, including a possible hotel. Any project would include two floors of deeded and dedicated space for the culinary institute. She also questioned why the city would issue a request for expressions of interest while still referring potential developers to her.
"I haven't backed off," Bates said. "If I believe in something I'm going to back it. I want to see that school developed no matter what goes down."
But the EDC has said they were forced to take back title to the building as a last resort after Bates' development plans failed to materialize. Liens incurred while Bates controlled the building have placed it in jeopardy of foreclosure and the dangerous conditions are proof of why legal action was required to regain control of the building.
The building, which sits on a 4,300-square-foot lot and is zoned for both commercial and residential uses, is being offered as-is, meaning any new developer would have to deal with the liens.
The EDC acknowledged it was still trying to work with Bates in the interest of getting the project developed but said they expected to win the appeal and the requests for expression of interest were part of the process of moving forward as quickly as possible.
"Unfortunately for the residents of East Harlem, the Corn Exchange Building, under its previous owner, sat undeveloped for years. Our goal is to activate and preserve this historic building as soon as possible, which will create jobs, promote economic development in the area, and bring amenities to the community," said Kyle Sklerov, a spokesperson for the EDC.
The building was designed by architects Lamb & Rich in the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles. It was originally constructed for the Mount Morris Bank, which was absorbed by the Corn Exchange Bank in 1913. The building then fell into the hands of the city due to tax foreclosure in the late 1970s.
Members of the Historic Districts Council have described the building, located at Park Avenue and East 125th Street in the shadow of the Metro North rail line, as one of the best examples of architecture along 125th Street.
"If EDC wanted to do the right thing they could have said we will give you back the deed and help you develop the building," said Bates.
Community Board 11 member LaShawn Henry, who heads the board’s City Properties and Land Use Committee, questioned the development process of city agencies.
"Our agencies should do a better job looking at at the viability of these developers. If there was a better process upfront, the Ethel Bates' of the world would not lose so much money on the back end," said Henry. "It's really important we find viable developers to take our available land and do something for our community."
The goal now, said Henry, was to make sure a valuable property such as the Corn Exchange Building was developed quickly.
"If we don't make sure someone responsible gets this property it could sit there undeveloped for another 25 years," Henry said.