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National Urban League HQ and Civil Rights Museum Coming to Harlem

By Jeff Mays | February 22, 2013 1:17pm

HARLEM — The National Urban League will move its headquarters to 125th Street along with a museum documenting the history of the American civil rights movement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Friday.

Cuomo said the project, which is part of a redevelopment plan to replace an expansive parking garage between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, will spark 125th Street's ongoing growth.

“This project will play a key role in Harlem’s ongoing renaissance,” Cuomo said in a statement. “It will create jobs, build on the community’s rich arts and cultural history, and attract new investments and opportunities."

The museum will be the state's first civil rights museum.

The league's headquarters is expected to generate 100 jobs. The project also will include the Museum of the Urban Civil Rights Experience that will serve as a Harlem visitor's center, an Urban League conference center, 114 units of affordable rental housing, retail space and a 225-car public garage.

“No community in the nation is more closely associated with African-American history and culture than Harlem, and we are proud and inspired to help create jobs, contribute to the community and participate in the revitalization of 125th Street,”  Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said in a statement.

But the plan to redevelop the garage and retail storefronts has drawn concern from Harlem stakeholders. DNAinfo.com New York reported earlier this week opponents of the plan believe Cuomo backed it to gain support from Morial as he works to capture the black vote ahead of a possible run for president in 2016.

City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, Assemblyman Keith Wright and other local leaders were pushing an alternative proposal by Grid Properties, which would have brought an annex of Jazz at Lincoln Center, along with local outfits such as Melba's restaurant, the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Hip Hop Cultural Center.

Supporters said the Grid proposal would have included many local groups and brought 1,200 permanent jobs to the area.

Dickens said she liked elements of the Urban League project, but was concerned with how the project proceeded.

"They weren't inclusive," she said of the Urban League. "They should have come to sit down with all of us."

Others said they were concerned about the Urban League proposal because affordable housing is not a priority for the 125th Street corridor. Cultural, retail and office space should be the priority for Harlem's main thoroughfare, they argued.

"Housing is not going to fit the bill here," said Dr. Joseph L. Tait, president and CEO of Harlem Commonwealth Council, which has partnered with Grid Properties on the Jazz at Lincoln Center proposal as well as the Harlem USA mall. "125th Street is an area for economic development."

Melba Wilson, owner of Melba's, agreed.

"A Whole Foods is scheduled to be developed across the street from this site, so you want to piggy back off of that," she said. "There are other places to put affordable housing."

The Hudson Companies and BRP Development Corporation are partnering with the Urban League on the project, which will have nearly half a million square feet and become Harlem's largest mixed-use retail project.

Groundbreaking is expected in 2015.

Bloomberg said the Urban League, which officials said was also being courted by Washington D.C., will add to the neighborhood's already rich history.

“Since our rezoning of 125th Street in 2008, we have witnessed this central corridor continue to grow as a vibrant hub for arts, culture, entertainment and retail in Harlem,” he said in a statement.

“The Urban League Empowerment Center will be an important piece of the area’s ongoing revitalization, celebrating Harlem’s rich history while generating critical economic activity that will ensure its even brighter future.”