HARLEM — A plan to allow the nation's largest civil rights organization to turn a 125th Street garage into its headquarters and a civil rights museum is unfairly kicking out several minority-owned businesses, the owners and officials said.
The Urban League will move its national headquarters to a parking garage between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, under a deal announced in February by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The building also houses Fishers of Men Restaurant, Kaarta Imports, Sarku Japan and Golden Krust Restaurant, which would have to relocate.
"Is the National Urban League carrying out its historic mission when it displaces minority entrepreneurs? Shouldn't they be giving them a hand instead?" said state Sen. Bill Perkins. "They created a place where other people want to be but now they can't be there themselves."
Lorraine Morrison, vice president for real estate development for Golden Krust said franchisee Ronald Waltin "risked his entire life's savings to open a Golden Krust on 125th Street" in 2004.
"The conditions in Harlem at the time were quite deplorable, between the drug infestation and high crime rate it resulted in a tough economic environment," said Morrison, adding that the forced move would "deal a harsh blow not only to Harlem but also the Golden Krust brand."
The National Urban League project 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. It is scheduled to open in 2016.
As DNAinfo New York first reported, some Harlem leaders criticized the plan, saying they believed the group had a leg up on the competition because Cuomo was trying to secure minority support ahead of a possible 2016 presidential run. Urban League President Marc Morial would be a powerful ally in efforts to secure the black vote.
There were also objections to housing on the retail thoroughfare and many local leaders, such as City Councilwoman Inez Dickens and Assemblyman Keith Wright, were pushing an alternative proposal by Grid Properties that 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.
Dickens criticized the Urban League for not being inclusive enough with local leaders, a mantle that Perkins has picked up.
"It's almost like this was a back room deal," said Perkins, who added that he feared the treatment of these vendors would set the tone for other minority business on 125th Street as an estimated $1 billion in development is planned for the strip.
A public meeting on the proposal is scheduled for Thursday night at 6 p.m. in the Harlem State Office Building.
Charles J. Hamilton Jr., the outside general counsel for the National Urban League, accused Perkins of spreading "bad information" about the project, such as the idea that Macy's, under fire for allegations that it racially profiles shoppers, is being brought in as an anchor tenant and investor.
"Macy's is not involved in the project in any way," said an angry Hamilton.
Hamilton said the National Urban league had discussions with Macy's months ago, but that Macy's made the group an offer for the property that was not financially feasible for the project.
"We talked to them, we couldn't make a deal with them, and now discussions are over," Hamilton said. "The answer is no. I don't know how to say it any more emphatically."
Hamilton said the business owners in question are tenants of the city and state and that their leases will have expired by the time they take control of the property.
"We have put pressure on the state and city to do everything they can to provide those businesses with relocation support," Hamilton said.
When the new project is completed, the business owners will be given preference to return to the site if they "meet the criteria for leasing," said Hamilton. "We are very concerned about the tenants being treated well by the city and state."
Officials for the Economic Development Corporation, which owns the site's land, referred questions to the Empire State Development Corporation, which controls the air rights. The EDC is currently transferring the land to the state.
The ESDC said the National Urban League proposal will bring 100 permanent jobs to the area and keep the organization, which says they were being recruited by Washington D.C., in New York. The project will be the largest mixed-use development in Harlem and continue to spark revitilization on the street, they say.
Tenant leases signed after 2008 mention the possibility of a development project. EDC officials say the majority of current leases were signed after 2008, but did not provide a specific number.
All but one of the current leases expire on or before Aug. 14, 2015, and the one outstanding lease has an early termination clause in case of redevelopment. A hearing on the project was held July 10.
Under the agreement, the National Urban League will have to lease 5 percent of the total retail space at below market rates. The former tenants will also be given preference in acquiring retail space.
"We are focusing on relocation efforts for the local businesses that will be leaving this location when their leases expire and we are working to ensure these tenants have priority if they choose to apply for new leases when the building is complete," said Empire State Development Corporation President and CEO Kenneth Adams in a statement.
That includes loans or other financial assitance to help businesses remain open during construction of the complex and afterward.
Barbara Askins, President of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, said she is aware of efforts to help the small businesses and she hopes a solution can be reached.
Perkins said he will keep pressure on the National Urban League, state and city to make sure some of the few remaining small businesses on 125th Street are treated fairly.
"The National Urban League should be in the forefront of protecting them as opposed to threatening them," said Perkins.