By Jeff Mays
EAST HARLEM — La Marqueta, a historic community marketplace that stretches beneath the Metro-North tracks along Park Avenue in East Harlem, will become home to a culinary business incubator for women and an urban garden under a new city plan.
During the 1950s, more than 500 mostly Puerto Rican vendors occupied the space that runs from East 111th to East 119th streets. Despite recent renovations, La Marqueta has lacked tenants.
But the city is hoping the first new tenants to move into the space will reverse that.
"The idea of the La Marqueta incubator came out of supporting the food industry, which is critical in New York City," said Julie Wood, a spokesperson for the Economic Development Corporation, which manages La Marqueta.
"We are excited about Urban Garden Center because they can help attract other tenants and give people a place to do some great shopping."
Hot Bread Kitchen, a business incubator that will teach immigrant women about the culinary industry, is scheduled to open in a third of the 80,000-square-foot space by November.
Urban Garden Center, which sells garden supplies and a variety of plants, is scheduled to open next month, with plans for adding outdoor spaces and parking in April.
Dimitri Gatanas, son of Urban Garden Center owner Aspasia Gatanas, said his family operated a business on Second Avenue between East 103rd and East 102nd streets for 50 years before closing in 2007 due to a death in the family. The business recently reopened in an "awkward" location in the Bronx, said Gatanas.
When they heard about plans for La Marqueta, Gatanas said he proposed to take over the entire space and create something akin to the Chelsea Market, but was rejected.
Still, the family is excited about returning to El Barrio in smaller quarters.
"What we like is that we are in the heart of East Harlem where we built our business. We are in close proximity to clients in West Harlem and the Upper East Side, where a huge number of our clients are located," said Gatanas.
"We also thought it was part of an opportunity to be a part of something historic."
Hot Bread Kitchen is a non-profit that will help immigrant women chefs who have aspirations to take their businesses beyond their home kitchens, but who don't have the capital to expand into their own space. The group will help women develop the skills they need to launch a full business.
In addition to providing kitchen training and English language classes, Hot Bread Kitchen will help entrepreneurs become certified food handlers, learn about marketing and product development, complete a business plan, and find funding for their businesses.
Hot Bread Kitchen expects to have 19 businesses that provide 37 jobs operating out of incubator by the end of the first year. Projections for year five are that 116 jobs will have been created.
The news comes after a recent report from the Center for an Urban Future argued in favor of a more commercial plan proposed by the Harlem Community Development Corporation, which would turn La Marqueta into a High Line for Harlem, and expand the space to 133rd Street and fit 900 vendors.
The High Line-style plan would attract tourists, provide healthy food options in an area that is in desperate need, and give small businesses a chance to compete with the large national chains now moving into the area, the report said.
Concerns have been raised about that plan, including that it would require a lot of capital and could introduce too many vendors into the area without evidence that there is enough foot traffic in the area to support them.
But David Giles, the research associate at the Center for an Urban Future who wrote the report, said EDC can proceed with its current plans while also looking to the community to help decide its future.
"What they are doing with kitchen incubator and the Urban Garden Center is good, but the Harlem Community Development Corporation and others want something bigger," said Giles. "What the Harlem Community Development Corporation was doing is providing a vison for long term development, and it's in the city's and EDC interest to study and find what part of that vision could work."
Gatanas, of the Urban Garden Center, said the current plan would at least give a boost to local businesses.
"With Target and Costco down the street, this is a David versus Goliath," Gatanas said.
"You have the grassroots mom-and-pop shops in La Marqueta competing with Target, and hopefully the mom-and-pop mentality will prevail. If we band together, we can make something happen for East Harlem."