125th Street Delays, Scale-Downs and Restarts Tell Story of Harlem’s Business Recovery

By Anjli Parrin on Jan 5th, 2013

Victoria Theater

The Victoria Theater on 125th Street has been out of use since 1997. (Photo courtesy Empire State Development)

In 1917, Loew’s Victoria Theater opened its ornate doors as one of the grand cinema and vaudeville palaces on Harlem’s Opera Row.

With its terra-cotta façade, grand staircase, large balcony and crystal chandeliers, the lavish 2,394-seat theater once drew moviegoers to Harlem. Designed by Thomas Lamb, one of the era’s most celebrated movie theater architects, the building underwent major renovation and restoration in 1987 and became eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Yet, little has been done to preserve the Victoria, and the property on 125th Street has stood vacant for 15 years.

Water leakage and neglect has significantly damaged its historic architecture, according to a July report by Empire State Development and the Harlem Community Development Corp.

In 2004, the latter began taking proposals to redevelop the property, and in 2007 awarded the project to Danforth Development Partners LLC. However, as the recession and credit crunch began to impact businesses, the firm was unable to raise funds.

That’s become a common refrain along Harlem’s main street.   The decision to rezone 125th Street in 2008 paved the way for the condominiums, office towers and cultural institutions that have begun to transform the neighborhood. But during the recession, many ambitious projects were put on hold and are only now starting up again.

Take the Victoria Theater, for example.  Danforth came to an agreement with Exact Capital last year to help finance the $142 million project, and plans to finally break ground this month.

Two 26-story towers will rise above the theater, with space for a hotel, housing, retail and cultural activities. The southern part of the theater, including the original lobby, façade, marquee and blade sign, will be restored and maintained. Aufgang & Subotovsky Architecture and Planning designed the new building.

“Capital and real-estate market conditions delayed the project’s predevelopment phase,” said Curtis L. Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corp. However, Archer anticipates completed construction by mid-2014.

The 125th Street rezoning is meant to increase Harlem’s profile as a business district with commercial, retail, cultural and hotel space. It will allow for 1.8 million square feet of additional business space  and 2,600 new housing units, according to the New York Economic Development Corp.

“The Apollo Theater is great, but we are looking for connect-the-dot-type uses in other places, too, so that you can have cultural activities across 125th Street,” said Barbara Askins of the 125th Street Business Improvement District. She believes the Victoria Theater will be among them.

The hotel within the new building will become only the second built in Upper Manhattan since 1914, according to the Empire State Development. There is, however, demand for rooms in the area. According to a March analysis by HVS Consulting and Valuation Services, the neighborhood could support 1,105 units at a 79 percent occupancy rate .

The hotel’s 210 rooms makes it larger than the Aloft Hotel, a member of the Starwood Group, which opened in 2010, a few blocks from the Victoria.

Harlem Victoria Theater

An illustration of the future Victoria Theater complex. A 2008 rezoning laws has allowed for high-rise commercial buildings on 125th Street. (Illustration courtesy Empire State Development)

A number of bed and breakfasts also operate in the area. Since the economic downturn, people have begun converting their houses and even apartments into small inns or B&Bs, according to Jeremy Archer, owner of Sugar Hill Harlem Inn, which opened in 2005.

“There are a lot of people who just need to make some extra money,” he said.

In July, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the selection of two firms to redevelop the Taystee Bakery Complex and the Corn Exchange Building, both on 125th Street.

Like the Victoria, both buildings had been vacant for many years. The firms earlier selected by the city failed to redevelop the properties, which were then returned to the city.

Taystee will get a $100 million renovation to become CREATE @ Harlem Green, a 328,000-square-foot industrial and commercial space. The project should generate about 440 permanent jobs and 510 construction jobs, according to the Economic Development Corp.

CREATE @ Harlem Green will house a variety of local businesses, including the Harlem Brewing Company; HerFlan, a flan-making shop run by costume designer Sandra Hernandez, who will expand her current La Marqueta operation with a wholesale division; and the Carver Federal Savings Bank, one of the nation’s largest African American-operated banks.

Meanwhile, 125th Street Equities LLC will develop the Corn Exchange on Park Avenue next to the Amtrak and Metro-North Railroad station, investing $16 million to restore the 1883 edifice. The building, landmarked in 1993 by the Landmarks Preservation Committee, has been derelict for over 40 years. The project, incorporating offices and retail, will create 90 new permanent jobs and 60 construction jobs.

“We rezoned 125th Street to strengthen the famed Harlem corridor and enhance its historic role as a vibrant arts, entertainment and retail center. These two developments are the latest examples of how well it’s working,” Bloomberg said in a statement.

A rezoning proposal for West Harlem was also approved in November to increase mixed-use development and inclusive housing.

“We’re pushing culture and want to create a cultural industry, so we’re bringing all the creative people up here,” said Askins.

Other projects, however, have been scaled down on 125th Street. The $700 million East Harlem Media Entertainment and Cultural Center project was awarded in 2010, after first being offered in 2008 to General Growth Properties, which filed for bankruptcy the following year. After some delays, the project’s first phase, a much smaller-than-planned 49-unit housing complex, is nearly complete. Development will continue over the next four years, but it’s unclear whether the total project will still cost $700 million.

Such continuing delays have led to speculation that some projects might never be completed. But Askins said the growth is needed.

“There is a lot of potential for business, and there is a demand that’s not being met,” she said.

“We’re noticing, particularly on the southwest corner of 125th Street and Eighth Avenue,  that we are averaging over 800,000 pedestrians a month,” she added.

But there are still concerns over safety in Harlem. While cultural establishments capitalize on the legacy of soul and jazz, Harlem’s association with crime and drugs keep many people away.

“Generally speaking, Americans are not coming to Harlem very much. I have people who come here and they tell me, ‘Oh, the immigration officer, when he saw where I was coming, said you don’t want to stay in Harlem,’” said Archer, speaking about  his inn guests. Only about 20 percent of his guests are American, he estimated; the majority are European.

Still, planners and developers seem optimistic about Harlem’s future. The city just finished taking proposals to create a new 300,000-square-foot commercial and cultural space on 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, with construction scheduled to begin in July.

“The redevelopment of this site will add to the incredible momentum building along 125th Street in recent years,” said Economic Development Corporation President Seth W. Pinsky.

“It’s really exciting,” said Askins. “There’s more development starting to happen.”

Leave a Reply

Log in / Advanced NewsPaper by Gabfire Themes