By Christina B. Farnsworth. From 1920 until about 1930, the Harlem Renaissance, a period of great creativity in literature, music, and dance, flourished.
The Great Depression signaled the end of that era. Harlem suffered damaging riots in the late '60s. It became a dangerous slum, rife with abandoned buildings. Homeownership sank to 6 percent. And with abandonment, the city of New York became the reluctant owner of the second largest stock of publicly owned housing in the nation.
But the memory of Harlem's glamorous past lingered, and anyone able to overlook its negatives could see positives: a wonderful location at Central Park's edge, well served by public transportation. There is vacant land but also a real urban fabric with historic townhomes ripe for renovation. Demand and opportunity abound.
In 1994, New York's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) commissioned a study that detailed the expense and difficulties of maintaining more than 87,000 housing units citywide. The results spurred programs to halt decline in troubled neighborhoods. HPD and the NYC Housing Partnership administer a program called ANCHOR (Alliance for Neighborhood Commerce, Homeownership, and Revitalization), which integrates rebuilding of commercial corridors with development of ownership housing, using public funds to leverage private financing. Increased commercial occupancy and a rise in the homeownership rate by 40 percent reflect the area's turnaround.
Two years ago, for the first time, a Harlem townhome community won a Builder's Choice Award (see "Builder's Choice," October 2000, page 172). Developer/builder Suna/Levine, one of the partners involved in the award-winning community, has now one-upped itself with the $63 million Renaissance Plaza--the largest mixed-use development built in Harlem in 20 years and the first of four Harlem mixed-use ANCHOR projects. The local sponsor for both projects is the nonprofit Malcolm Shabazz Development Corp. through nearby Malcolm Shabazz Mosque.
The stepped, eight-to-11-story Renaissance Plaza sits on what was city-owned vacant land. It includes a 60,000-square-foot, ground-floor shopping center and a 200-car parking garage topped by 241 living units. The shopping center's landscaped rooftop forms the residential units' 10,000-square-foot interior courtyard. The complex is located at the intersection of 116th Street and Lenox Avenue, also known as Malcolm X Boulevard, with a subway stop below the intersection. It's a 10-minute commute to midtown, just nine blocks from the Apollo Theater, and six blocks from Central Park. For residents, the location could hardly be better: The grocery, drug, and pet stores as well as the bank are just downstairs.
Among ANCHOR projects Renaissance Plaza is unusual because retail was separately financed. Before construction could begin, 75 percent of the $14 million retail component had to be pre-leased, says builder Jeffrey E. Levine. The government-backed financing package required a co-insurance commitment from the New York State Mortgage Agency on the first mortgage loan and 50 percent pre-leasing to creditworthy borrowers.
Locally owned Pioneer Supermarkets signed the crucial lease. Other tenants include CVS Pharmacy, Petland Discounts, Ashley Stewart for women's apparel, and Carver Savings Bank.
To use public financing, the housing had to be affordable. The co-op units sold to purchasers with gross incomes between $25,488 and $140,500: 75 percent to buyers earning up to $88,100 a year for a family of four (165 percent of area-wide median income), the rest to households earning up to 250 percent of median income.
One-, two-, and three-bedroom units, among 19 different floor plans, range in size from 660 to 1,420 square feet. The "sales price," which is essentially a down payment on ownership, ranges from $4,056 to $15,394, with monthly fees of $708 to $2,696. Co-ops, common in New York, differ from and predate condominium ownership. Co-op owners own shares of the entire building based on unit size and location. Shareholders lease the unit they actually occupy.
Monthly payment includes the shareholder's portion of the master loan (the single loan financing the entire building). Buyers' proportionate shares of the underlying mortgage range from $102,000 to $367,000. Monthly fees also include building taxes, maintenance, and utilities. Owners, known as tenant shareholders, must individually insure unit interiors and personal property. Renaissance is also a limited equity cooperative, which means profits from resale are shared using a formula based on length of ownership. The formula helps maintain affordability. Apartment owners who sell their units must split profits evenly with the city, which uses them to reduce the underlying mortgage, says Michael Kaye, director of development and general counsel at Levine Builders.
As for the commercial component, financiers, retailers, and developers are moving into areas they once ignored. Investment in Harlem now helps banks meet community reinvestment quotas. "Banks are being measured on how much lending--commercial, as well as residential--we do in these areas," says Bernell K. Grier, senior vice president for community development at Fleet Bank.
Suna/Levine is itself a partnership between Levine Builders, a Queens-based developer, and Urban Metro Management Development, a real estate management firm in Long Island.
Levine and Stuart Match Suna, a principal of Suna/Levine and vice president for Urban Metro Management Development, originally met through Suna's father, a mechanical contractor. They started their own partnership remodeling substandard buildings and have become adept at pioneering complicated partnerships that have become models for future development. The Renaissance is no exception. "It was the most complicated project we have ever done," Suna says.
The Renaissance Plaza may not be the first project that sparked Harlem's new renaissance, but it is the one that people consider to have spurred new interest in the area, says Levine.
All around, it's a win-win situation: affordable housing, great transportation, and accessible retail. "We are proud to celebrate the success of Renaissance Plaza and proud to be a part of the overall Harlem renaissance," says George Armstrong, president of the NYC Housing Partnership. "This development shows how public/private partnerships can successfully revitalize neighborhoods, provide housing, and stimulate economic development and business activity in our communities."