By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The Corn Exchange Building at Park Avenue and East 125th Street is a shadow of its former self, having been sliced from six stories to a two-story high stub because of its decrepit condition.
Now, officials at the city's Economic Development Corporation want to hear proposals on how to redevelop the landmarked structure, which was built in 1889.
"The purpose is to understand what the interest is," said Kyle Sklerov, a spokesperson for EDC. "We think it is an important site because it is located in the heart of Harlem's commercial corridor and it has been underutilized for a long time."
The building sits on a 4,300-square-foot lot and is zoned for both commercial and residential uses. The building 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, according to reports. The building eventually fell into the hands of the city due to tax foreclosure in the late 1970s.
Christopher London, an architectural historian and board member of the Historic Districts Council, called the building the finest example of architecture along 125th Street. He first began to admire the building a quarter century ago when it was still intact.
"It had superb brick work with carved details and copper detailing with beautiful fire escapes. That's now lost because the building was left to rot," he said. "It was just a particularly fine and large building and glorious example."
The building was landmarked in 1993. In 2003, the city sold the building to a local activist, Ethel Bates, who hoped to turn it into a nonprofit culinary school for about $9 million. Those plans fell through after a developer Bates partnered with bailed on the project.
No other development partner was found and while Bates invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own money, she still did not have the resources to complete the project. The city sued to regain control of the property as it continued its descent into decrepitude.
In 2009, portions of the structure were deemed a life and safety hazard by the Department of Buildings and the top two floors were deconstructed. That still has community activists and historic preservationists upset.
"The controlled demolition of the building was a real lost opportunity because the building was incredibly significant and there's not a whole heck of a lot of them left," said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. "We thought the building could be saved and stabilized and that the city was acting out of an exaggerated fear for public safety."
Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, a neighborhood advocacy group, said the city should have helped Bates develop the building.
"The damage to the property was the result of the city's benign neglect. Rather than repossession, and ultimate sale to the high-bidder, community developers with insufficient resources should be supported rather than left to fend for themselves," said Ortiz.
The goal now is to move forward, EDC President Seth Pinsky said in a statement.
"The project will bring much-needed jobs and economic investment to the area, while reactivating a building located in the heart of Harlem’s 125th Street commercial corridor," said Pinsky.
Bankoff said he was concerned that the request for expressions of interest did not specifically mention preserving what was left of the building. In the best case scenario, Bankoff and London said they'd like to see a developer reproduce the building that was there, although both admit that is an expensive and improbable outcome.
"Nothing would be lost by EDC crafting a request for proposals that insists the developer restore the building. Without that, they are saying this site is like a free and empty parking lot," said Bankoff. "Developers are going to think that this is a really big site next to the Metro-North, so I want to put a really big office building or residential unit."
EDC spokesman Sklerov said that since the remaining structure retains its landmark status, EDC must work with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to develop any new projects. Community input will also be sought by engaging Community Board 11 in the process.
The city is under no obligation to accept any of the expressions of interest and can always issue a request for proposals, Sklerov added.
But after all the building has been through, London said he is not optimistic.
"If they could restore it that would be great because as a stub it has no significance," he said. "But I think the best thing we can hope for would be a good architect to make a good project for our time instead of just a mediocre infill building on a small budget."
Expressions of interest in the project are due to the city by April 22.