Harlem Biz Owners Question National Urban League Project

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A world renowned civil rights group’s plan to turn a row of small businesses in Harlem into a lustrous new headquarters and black history museum would trample on the very small business owners whose life stories could themselves be in the museum, foes say.

The plan by the National Urban League – backed by Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg – would replace an underutilized parking lot and a string of businesses on 125th St. between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards with a 400,000-square-foot, $225 million complex comprising a new HQ for the progressive group, housing, the city’s first civil rights museum, and retail space for national chain stores.

But it’s all built on the backs of some longtime businessmen and women who staked their lives on the once-seedy strip.

“These are decent hard-working entrepreneurs who have invested in this neighborhood when no one else would … and now they’re going to be treated like used Dixie cups?” said state Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Harlem).

The business owners say they were offered help to relocate and were invited to apply for a $250,000 loan, but they don’t want to leave.

“It was a blessing for us thinking we made it to 125th St., our mecca,” said Joseph “Joe Fish” Benbow, manager of the family-owned restaurant Fishers of Men II, which opened on the Main Street of Black America six years ago. “My dream was to be here and finish the race with my family.”

A couple of doors down, restaurant owner Raj Whadwa poured $700,000 to convert a vacant space into the Sarku Japan restaurant — but now he might have to abandon his finally successful restaurant after just over a year.

“As a restaurant the first year is the toughest year – that’s when you start building clientele,” said Whadwa. “Now it’s my time to get my investment back, but now they say it’s time to leave.”

State officials say all the business owners signed leases that disclosed the existence of the redevelopment scheme. Most of those leases expire in 2015, when construction on the National Urban League center is expected to start.

And those businesses will “have priority if they choose to apply for new leases when the building is complete,” promised Ken Adams, president of Empire State Development, the state agency coordinating the project.

The National Urban League proposal was the fruit of a 2012 effort by the city and state economic development agencies to redevelop what both groups believe was an underutilized parking garage. The agencies said they were seeking a developer to create a cultural hub, attract tourists, create jobs and economic activity.

The Urban League’s move to Harlem is a homecoming for the 103-year-old group, which is currently based at 120 Wall St. until 2017.

“This is going to be a transformational project,” said Charles Hamilton, outside counsel for the Urban League.

Transformation is what worries Massamakam Tounkara, owner of Kaarta Imports African Fabrics – the first business to move into the empty building over 20 years ago.

“I was alone on the strip,” said Tounkara. “People said I lost my mind…I wanted (my store) to be here in the future.”

Fifteen years ago, Rolston Waltin sold a Queens business and mortgaged his house so he could open Golden Crust, a Caribbean chain restaurant, next to the empty rat-infested parking lot inside of the 125th St. complex.

“I wanted to be amongst my people,” Waltin said. “There was nothing like this is Harlem.”

The National Urban League claims it will set aside 5% of retail space for local businesses who meet certain, and still unannounced, qualifications, said Hamilton.

Perkins is calling for more information.

“We need details regarding their promises to relocate them,” said Perkins. “We appreciate the economic development, but not at the expense of the folks who have paid their dues.”

Public hearing on the National Urban League Project, Empire State Development, 163 W. 125th St. between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. and Lenox Ave. in Harlem, (212) 222-7315, Nov. 7, 6 p.m.

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