By Jon Schuppe
EAST HARLEM — Construction crews have broken ground on the first piece of a $700 million project that will slowly transform a rundown two-block area on Third Avenue into a “mixed use” development of affordable housing, retail stores, offices, a hotel and cultural space.
The project, the result of collaboration between private developers and several city and state agencies, is expected to create about 1,500 permanent jobs by the time it is completed years from now. A neighborhood task force will work with the developers to come up with a plan to hire local residents, officials said.
The issue is important in East Harlem, which is seeing a burst in development but has one of the city’s highest unemployment rates. Local officials have been frustrated by the hiring practices at the neighborhood’s massive new retail outlet, East River Plaza, where only a small percentage of employees hired have been from the neighborhood.
Hoping to avoid a similar problem, the city’s Economic Development Corporation will approve the local hiring plan for the Third Avenue project, EDC project manager Carolee Fink said at a groundbreaking ceremony Monday.
The project, called the East Harlem Media, Entertainment and Cultural Center, has been in the works for years, but the economic downtown made it hard to put all the pieces together at once, officials said. So they decided to break it into pieces.
“This is too important for East Harlem to put it off,” said Robert Lieber, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development.
With the $23 million first phase underway at the southeast corner of Third Avenue and East 125th Street, officials expect the other pieces to fall into place “as the market starts to strengthen,” Lieber said.
When construction on the project’s first piece ends in summer 2011, it will include 49 units of affordable housing and 5,600 square feet of retail space.
EDC President Seth Pinsky said the city is still in the process of obtaining the land needed for the entire 1.7 million-square-foot project. The area is currently a hodgepodge of abandoned lots, parking lots, and a few retail outlets, including a carpet store, a nail salon, an antiques shop and a dry cleaners. Negotiations with six remaining landowners are ongoing, Pinsky said.
The project’s development team is a partnership of private companies Archstone-Smith, The Richman Group, Monadnock Construction and local nonprofits Hope Community and Operation Fightback. The project is getting financing help from several public agencies, including the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal, the city council and the state Energy Research and Development Authority. The city's assistance includes tax breaks.
East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said an original plan to develop the site was scrapped years ago, then was revived to reflect more of what East Harlem residents needed.
“This is a real example of community based planning,” she said.