HARLEM—National Urban League President Marc Morial defended the civil rights group's plan to build its headquarters on 125th Street in front of a hostile Harlem crowd furious that four minority merchants fear being put out of business by the project.
"We are going to do a project that benefits the community," said Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, about the plan to build the state's first civil rights museum, a conference center, 114 units of affordable rental housing, retail space and a 225-car public garage on the site of what is now an underutilized parking garage located between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue.
He called the plan, backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a "homecoming" to the "leading black neighborhood in the world" because the nation's largest civil rights group was founded in Harlem 103 years ago.
"We are not insensitive. We care about small businesses," said Morial who left Thursday night's meeting after a couple of hours when an argument between two speakers broke out.
He said displaced businesses would be given a "fair opportunity" to return to the completed site.
But the businesses being moved say that Morial barely acknowledged them in his remarks and the fact that state Sen. Bill Perkins had to fight for them to be allowed to speak shows that they are being disregarded, despite them helping keep 125th Street afloat during rougher times.
"Everyone involved in this project will be making a profit but my family will be left with nothing," said Lakisha Benbow who owns Fishers of Men with her husband Joseph.
Ron Waltin, a Golden Krust franchisee, said he mortgaged his house to get the $400,000 he needed to acquire and upgrade his space on 125th Street.
"I don't know what the future holds for me," he said.
Raj Whadwa, owner of Sarku Japan, said it took three years to secure his storefront on 125th Street where he has been for just a year.
"It looks like we are going to be left out on the street with nothing," said Whadwa.
With Morial sitting in the front row, Perkins did his best to shame the civil rights leader
"These businesses are a remarkable example of perseverance and faith in Harlem and this community to the extent everyone wants to be up here now, including the National Urban League," said Perkins, who later called the group an "accomplice" to the "demise" of the small businesses.
Morial said all of the tenants' leases will be up by the time they take control of the building in 2015. Curtis Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, said the merchants will be given assistance, including low interest loans that could be forgiven, relocation and technical help.
At least five percent of retail space at the new building will be leased to local businesses at below market rates and the displaced businesses will get preference, state officials said.
But the owners said they've been offered $250,000 loans which will not likely cover the costs of moving to a new space. The store owners believed they should be brought out of their leases.
Benbow said she and her husband have already learned they don't qualify for the state loan and their business is currently debt free. Even the offer to return is inadequate, said Golden Krust's Waltin.
The store owners currently pay $40 to $60 per square foot for the space and Waltin said officials told him new rents could hover at $175 per square foot.
"None of us are going to be able to afford that," said Waltin.
Many in the crowd praised the Urban League, its history of fighting for civil rights and the planned Museum of the Urban Civil Rights Experience, but said they didn't understand why the group won't take more affirmative steps to protect the store owners.
"We need this museum to be on 125th Street but we have an obligation not to allow our African organizations to be manipulated," said Community Board 9 member Vicky Gholson. "We are your reality check," she added.
Melba Wilson, owner of Melba's restaurant, was one of the principals in a rival bid for the garage site submitted with Grid Properties in response to the request for proposals.
Wilson said her proposal would have allowed all of the storefront owners to stay while possibly bringing an annex of Jazz at Lincoln Center and retail space.
"It's our character and our flavor that brought these people here. Can we no longer afford to be in our own house?" asked Wilson. "It's a sad day in Harlem."
Several prominent Harlem leaders such as Assemblyman Keith Wright and Councilwoman Inez Dickens backed Wilson's proposal, but many felt Morial had the upper hand because a future endorsement of Cuomo would go a long way toward securing the black vote should Cuomo decide to toss his hat into the 2016 presidential race.
"That's wild political speculation," said Morial. "I thank the governor for being receptive to the idea."
Affected store owner Tounkara Massamakan of Kaarta Imports said he wants the National Urban League to be receptive to doing more to help local businesses who weathered the bad times on 125th Street.
"Today, as we see development come into Harlem, we want to be part of that development," Massamakan said through a translator. "We don't want to be eradicated."