HARLEM — A plan to redevelop a garage on 125th Street has some Harlem stakeholders accusing Gov. Andrew Cuomo of using the project to curry favor with African-American voters ahead of a possible run for president in 2016.
The governor and the Empire State Development Corporation favor a plan by the National Urban League — the nation's largest civil-rights organization — and its president Marc Morial that calls for moving the group's national headquarters to the site, several sources said.
The proposal includes a world-class museum detailing the history of the American civil-rights movement, retail spaces and low-income, affordable- and market-rate rental housing adjacent to the project, on 126th Street.
Harlem City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, State Assemblyman Keith Wright and other local leaders, however, support a competing proposal by Grid Properties to move an extension of Jazz at Lincoln Center to the site along with space to house local cultural groups, such as the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Hip-Hop Cultural Center and local restaurants such as Melba's.
The project would also bring in retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Carver Bank would consolidate its headquarters in the office space there. The 400,000-square-foot proposal would also produce an estimated 1,200 jobs, supporters say.
"These are folks from Harlem. We are talking about Melba's and a good cultural component," Wright said.
With a Whole Foods slated for the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street, and celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster Harlem helping to spark a burgeoning restaurant row on Lenox Avenue, many familiar with the proposal said the Grid Properties plan moves 125th Street forward.
"If we want 125th Street to grow well into the future, we have to get this project right," said one Harlem power player who, like most people agreeing to speak with DNAinfo.com New York about the proposal, requested anonymity so as not to damage their relationship with the governor.
"This project is coming at such a pivotal point because what you have is a cultural hub forming in that area," the business leader added. "If you add entertainment and culture, it will benefit the entire neighborhood because people could have a whole night's experience on 125th Street."
Charles J. Hamilton Jr., the outside general counsel for the National Urban League, said the group's lease on its Larry Silverstein-owned property at 120 Wall St. expires in 2017 and that the group wants to return to Harlem, where it was founded more than a century ago.
"We want to be in Harlem where we were founded," said Hamilton. "It's no secret, and we've talked to the mayor and the governor about it. They do not want us to leave New York the same way they wouldn't want any other business to leave."
Hamilton said the group is actively being courted to Washington, D.C., but believes Harlem is the ideal location.
The city's Economic Development Corporation issued a request for proposals in May to redevelop the 160,000-square-foot, 450-space parking garage located at 121 W. 125th St. between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard with nine retail storefronts into office and cultural space. The goal was to produce as much as 363,000 square feet of commercial space in addition to a visual- or performing-arts facility.
EDC owns the land and the Empire State Development Corporation controls the air rights on the site.
Grid Properties developed the first blockbuster project on 125th Street in the Harlem USA mall, which is used as a national development model. The company is also developing One-2-Five LIVE, a three-level infill development project next to the Apollo Theater that will include Harlem's first Red Lobster.
The proposed 14- or 15-story building would have 400,000 square feet of space and include a glass-faced structure on the first few levels, which would house retail and cultural space before the office space opens.
"People could not have envisioned how big a spark Harlem USA was to the community. This will be more explosive than Harlem USA, because the street has reached a level of development maturity," said Dr. Joseph L. Tait, president and CEO of Harlem Commonwealth Council, which has partnered with Grid Properties on both projects.
Hamilton, however, said the Urban League project would jumpstart 125th Street by bringing hundreds of jobs to the area and a national destination in the form of the civil-rights museum, which would become home to the group's traveling museum. Affordable rental housing is also needed in the area, he explained.
Many believe Cuomo is more a proponent of the Urban League project because of the clout Morial could provide in helping him build support in the African-American community — a voting bloc that would be crucial in a potential bid for the presidency in four years.
Another potential presidential candidate, former U.S. Secretary of State and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, was once leading then-Sen. Barack Obama in black support during the 2008 campaign before the tide shifted. Clinton, should she run, is expected to come into the race with a crucial advantage among African-American voters.
In 2002, Cuomo infuriated African-Americans when he challenged then state Comptroller H. Carl McCall — the first statewide elected black official — in a Democratic primary for governor. Cuomo dropped out of the bruising primary a week before the election, but Republican Gov. George Pataki went on to beat McCall.
"In the Democratic primary, the black vote is large and very frequently determines who will be the nominee," said David Bositis, a senior research associate with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that tackles issues facing African-Americans. "If Cuomo runs, he has to make some effort to win the black vote."
Because Clinton is expected to have such a large advantage among black voters, Bositis said Cuomo could be building a long-term record with African-Americans for the future.
And that certainly seems to be the perception among many Harlem leaders.
"Relationships are everything," said one development official, who also asked not to be named. "The Urban League, with its urban, black supporters, can't hurt the governor."
Wright said "there's always going to be speculation" about the connection between Cuomo and Morial. Hamilton agreed, saying Morial has a long-standing relationship with Cuomo that dates back to when Morial was the two-term mayor of New Orleans and Cuomo was head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Nonetheless, "EDC and the Empire State Development Corporation have made it clear that this was going to be decided on the merits," Hamilton noted.
The governor's office did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the city's Economic Development Corporation would only say that they are examining proposals and close to a decision. Representatives from the Empire State Development Corporation also did not respond in time for publication.
Inez Dickens, a City Council Speaker hopeful, said she wrote a letter of support to EDC for the Grid Properties proposal because she liked the way it involved existing minority business owners in Harlem. After she wrote her letter, she said she was contacted by the Urban League.
Dickens said she was impressed by the Urban League proposal because of the civil-rights museum and the fact that it includes housing.
"I have not rescinded my commitment to Grid Properties, but I did listen to what the Urban League was offering," she said. "I know this community wants permanent affordable housing, and I'm interested in what will be best for my community."
Wright, chairman of the Assembly's housing committee, said he, too, liked the Urban League's proposal for affordable housing and was supposed to meet with them last week before getting ill.
He said he was concerned, however, about a portion of the Urban League plan that would relocate the Harlem Y from 135th Street to the site on 125th Street.
Hamilton would only say the project will have a significant public-use element.
Meanwhile, many Harlem insiders say affordable housing on 125th Street is not what is needed.
"The importance here is the creation of jobs. Housing will also change the character of what is primarily an economic area," Tait said. "You don't want to have housing on that main drag because it's negative."
Melba Wilson, owner of Melba's and niece of the late founder of the iconic Sylvia's, Sylvia Woods, said she approached Grid Properties about expanding because she has outgrown her current space at 114th Street at Frederick Douglass Boulevard. That's when Grid Properties mentioned the request for proposals for the garage on 125th Street.
"I totally would not be able to move to 125th Street without a project like this," Wilson said.
"I don't want Harlem to be a place where, I am born and raised here, but can't afford to have a business here."