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Corn Exchange Building Will Have New Look With Old 'Flavor'

By Jeff Mays | March 8, 2012 9:36am
A working proposal of how East Harlem's long-abandoned Corn Exchange building might look after a $16 million renovation adds five floors to the existing two-story structure.
A working proposal of how East Harlem's long-abandoned Corn Exchange building might look after a $16 million renovation adds five floors to the existing two-story structure.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — The new Corn Exchange building will not be a facsimile of the old structure from 1889.

The landmark building on 125th Street and Park Avenue, reduced to a two-story nub in 2009 because of safety issues, won't have a solid brick facade or as much copper ornamentation, developers say.

But as an homage of sorts to classic construction, the five new stories added to the base will have modern bay windows with a lot of glazing to bring in extra light and a Mansard roof.

"We've tried not to duplicate what was there before but bring back some of the flavor," said architect David Danois of Danois Architects. "When we finish with it, you won't know the building was never there."

Developer Artimus revealed a preliminary plan for the building to Community Board 11's cultural affairs committee Wednesday night in the hopes of getting a letter of support for the $16 million renovation before heading to the board's landmarks preservation commission.

The remains of the Corn Exchange building at Park Avenue and 125th Street.
The remains of the Corn Exchange building at Park Avenue and 125th Street.
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Harlem BeSpoke

Under Artimus' proposal, the five stories will be added to the existing two floors to create 31,000 square feet of space, including 9,000 square feet for retail on the bottom two levels and the rest for office space above. An addition at the top of the building will be marketed to office tenants looking for loft-like space.

The building will also be energy efficient, developers said.

"From afar, you will look at the building and say this is the old building," said Ronen Haron, vice president of finance at Artimus.

For the first and second levels Haron said they are looking for coffee shops and restaurants as tenants to add to the area's street life. The firm also envisions office tenants that are "good for the neighborhood."

"It's about getting people to spend their money here," Haron added.

The building, which sits on a 4,300-square-foot lot, was designed by architects Lamb & Rich in the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles. It was originally constructed for Mount Morris Bank, which was absorbed by the Corn Exchange Bank in 1913. The building eventually fell into the hands of the city due to tax foreclosure in the late 1970s.

The building earned landmark status in 1993. In 2003, the city sold it to a local activist, Ethel Bates, who hoped to turn it into a nonprofit culinary school for about $9 million.

Those plans fell through, however. Bates said she invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own money but could not complete the project. The city successfully sued to regain control of the property.

The removal of the upper floors still rankles local activists and historic preservationists, who considered the building one of the finest architecture examples in all of Harlem and complain that the city let it deteriorate beyond repair.

Artimus officials, who have constructed several new buildings in Central Harlem around the lower Frederick Douglass Boulevard corridor, including Soha 118, said they are moving forward with what they consider to be one of the most important redevelopment plans in Harlem.

"This building is the key to bringing revitalization along Park Avenue and 125th Street," Haron said.

CB 11 members agreed on the importance of the project, but some said they wished there was more of a focus on restoration, member Tasha Williams said.

"I wish they could have done more for restoration but I understand the craftsmanship required was economically unrealistic," she said.

Members of the committee were most interested in the number of jobs projected for neighborhood residents. They pressed Artimus for a number, but Haron said it was impossible to commit to a specific job-creation figure.

Past projects, such as the building where Best Yet Supermarket is located, have hired many Harlem residents, he said.

"We always leave it in the hand of the developers who say, 'Trust us,'" said Yma Rodriguez, chair of the Cultural Affairs committee. "And then our data shows they never came through."

"We need to get something out of this as well and that's jobs," Rodriguez added.

Carolee Fink, vice president for real estate transaction services for the city's Economic Development Corporation, reminded the committee that the site "has sat vacant and blighted since the 1970s."

She said the developer would do things like break up contracts into smaller pieces so local businesses can bid and seek help from CB 11 in identifying neighborhood contractors available for work.

"There will be something finally happening on this site," Fink said.

Heron said Artimus believes that local hiring is important and plans to work closely with CB 11 to accomplish that goal.

"We completely agree with the board members that local hiring is important for the community and for the project," he said.

Meanwhile, Evan Kashanian, Artimus' development project coordinator, said the company is focused on overcoming some of the difficulties involved in the project, such as required environmental testing and the challenges of building so close to the Metro North elevated tracks.

"We are dedicated to building this project," Haron said.