Hooray For Harlem

Will a megamall reverse urban decay in Upper Manhattan?

Just off 125th Street in Harlem, the Soul Saving Station church offers spiritual renewal. Across the street, a block-long lot, nearly vacant, promises salvation of the economic variety.

Within weeks, workers will break ground here for Harlem USA, a $65 million, glass-walled retail and entertainment center. Two years after announcing their first tenant--a Disney Store--developers have leases from Gap, Old Navy, Cineplex Odeon, and others to nearly fill the place, enough to win construction financing, set to close May 1, from a group led by Chase Manhattan Bank.

The deal "has given us license to dream," says Deborah C. Wright, president of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, a federal-state-city initiative that will kick in $11 million in loans. Indeed, before Harlem USA opens in late 1999, construction should begin a block away on another retail complex planned by Forest City Ratner and a development arm of the powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church. Bulldozers already are leveling ground at 125th Street's east end for a long-delayed Pathmark supermarket. Opposite that, Jerry I. Speyer of Tishman-Speyer Properties has proposed a 400,000-square-foot mall.

The comeback on Harlem's main drag is a critical test for inner-city communities nationally, and many experts are optimistic. "This is going to usher in a wave of urban retailing," says Anne S. Habiby, director of research at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, who sees billions of dollars of pent-up consumer spending in such communities.

Even given Upper Manhattan's $6 billion in disposable income, though, it's taking a rich dose of government incentives and low-interest loans to spark development. The prospective payoff is a "pebble-in-the-pond phenomenon," says Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Retailers create jobs and lure middle-class residents, gradually improving the tax base and creating stability. Yet many wonder whether 125th Street's renaissance will affect more than a few blocks north or south. For now, Harlem still suffers from 19% unemployment and a 35% poverty rate. Vitality will require better schools and housing and sustained strength in New York's economy. Harlem is hot, but it's not yet healthy.

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