The 125th Street Garage Controversy or... How The Tree of Life Was Replaced by a Parking Lot!
Gary D. Brown Planning & Decision-Making in Urban Communities Professor Moss January 3, 1978.
In Spring 1977, the Harlem Urban Development Corporation initiated a working relationship with New York City to construct a garage and retail complex on 125th Street, Harlem's main retail and commercial thoroughfare. At the beginning of the year, the Carter Administration had announced it would provide Local Public Works grants to cities for construction projects, and HUDC took this opportunity to finance a project that, previously, had been only a plan.
But the road to construction proved rocky. HUDC's plan required demolition of the Triboro Building, which extends from 125th Street on the western side of Lenox Avenue, and houses The Tree of Life bookstore and Cultural Center. Supporters of The Tree of Life activated a campaign to save the building. From another quarter, many members of Community Planning Board 10, which covers Central Harlem, were less than enthusiastic about the garage proposal&emdash;some felt HUDC had tried to circumvent the community board's authority by presenting its proposal to the Mayor's office and the Board of Estimate before presenting it to the community board, and some had other concerns.
A three-sided controversy developed, and although compromises were reached, garage construction has begun, and The Tree of Life still stands, some important underlying concerns remain unresolved. Analyzing the critical actors, actions taken, and strategies employed in this extended event provides insight into the perspectives of some of the forces at work in the Harlem community.
II. Historical Significance of the Site
The city block that the Harlem Urban Development Corporation chose for its garage/retail complex, bounded by 125th and 126th Streets, Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, is dominated by a huge, vacant lot. The only buildings there are the Triboro Building (a three-story structure at the eastern end) and the Harlem State Office Building (of high-rise proportions, at the western end).
Because of how the block acquired this barren appearance despite its being on a relatively busy street&emdash;i.e., because of the block's history&emdash;almost any development proposal for the block, especially one proposed by the state and involving demolition, would have stirred controversy in Harlem during the 1970's.
In the late 1960's, New York State took possession of the block through eminent domain, and cleared all buildings except the Triboro Building to make way for construction of the Harlem State Office Building. Many Harlemites were angered that Harlem had not been consulted about these plans, and beginning in June 1969, about 30 Harlemites began camping on the site with the intention of preventing construction.1
They were supported by numerous community groups, community leaders, and politicians.2 Bear in mind that this was during the height of the Black Power era, with its demands for black control of black communities. Many Harlemites felt that the community, not oursiders, should decide how the block should be developed and numerous community groups produced alternatives plans to state office building. And not all Harlemites agreed with those who camped on the site&emdash;some felt the State Office Building would bring jobs to the community and stimulate the 125th Street economy.
After the occupation ended and the State Office Building was constructed, the drama of the occupation and the issues surrounding it maintained a place in Harlemites' minds. A constant reminder was the huge, fenced-off, rubble-strewn, vacant lot that, even eight years later, took up the most of the block. (The State Office Building ended up occupying relatively little space.) It was before this backdrop that the 1977 controversy around the garage/retail complex unfolded. Not that the events of 1969 played a prominent role in the events of 1977&emdash;they did not&emdash;but they were undoubtedly an underlying factor.
III. HUDC Makes Its Move
The Harlem Urban Development Corporation, a subsidiary of New York State's Urban Development Corporation, was formed in July 1971 to plan, develop, and finance low-to-middle-income housing, to assist commercial and industrial development, and to provide educational, cultural, and civic facilities in the Harlem area.3 Its permanent staff consists of architects, planners, and legal people,4 and its president is Donald J. Cogsville.
HUDC was responsible for the development of more than half of the total new construction in Harlem between 1971 and 1974, specifically one public school building and nine residential projects containing a total of 3,156 units.5 In June, 1974, HUDC published Harlem: The Next Ten Years: A Proposal for Discussion, which detailed the corporation's plans for housing and commercial development in Harlem.
The plan had three broad thrusts&emdash;extensive development and rehabilitation of residential areas, development of new and existing industrial facilities, and massive redevelopment of commercial areas, particularly 125th Street, which HUDC called "Harlem's central business district."6 HUDC's plans for the street included expanding on its role as a government center (most of the new office space built on 125th Street in recent years has been for use by Federal, state, and city agencies), developing more retail space and open air plazas, constructing a public market to house street merchants (who abound on 125th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues), construction of a major hotel, and development of moderate-to-high-density housing.7
These plans were expanded in an HUDC Two Year Development Plan at the end of 1976.8 The 125th Street portion of the document emphasized the street's economic state of decline, implying, obviously, the need for HUDC's development plans that were spelled out in more detail.
An important part of the plan was construction of parking places along the 125th Street corridor to cut down traffic congestion and attract shoppers and visitors.9 For the State Office Building block, the plan called for construction of a temporary parking plaza with 192 spaces on the spot where the Triboro Building stands.10 (Obviously, this would require destruction of The Tree of Life). The plaza would have parking rates "set to encourage shopper parking."11 As described, this parking plaza would be temporary&emdash;the space would eventually be redeveloped as a hotel-convention complex, and at that time a new parking garage with 410 spaces would be build adjacent to the site (on part of what is now a vacant lot adjacent to the Triboro Building).12
Finding financial backers to turn HUDC's enormous plans to reality was and is no easy task since private investors are, naturally, reluctant to risk money on a community such as Harlem that is not exactly booming economically.
But in early 1977, a potential public funding source appeared in the form of the Carter Administration's offer of Local Public Works grants. Cities had deadlines for presenting proposals to the administration on how the grants would be used and deadlines for beginning construction. Acting quickly, HUDC determined that it could finance its large garage plan through Local Public Works. The Harlem Urban Development Corporation could even speed up implementation of its own plan by building the garage instead of the parking plaza.
The organization commissioned a study of 125th Street traffic and parking patterns that, not surprisingly, verified "immediate need" for reasonably priced off-street parking to enhance 125th Street's commercial activities.13 Then the Harlem Urban Development Corporation initiated an agreement with the Mayor's Office of Development, wherein New York State would transfer to the city title for a parcel of land containing The Tree of Life and a portion of the vacant lot next to it.14 Using Local Public Works funds, HUDC would construct a garage/retail complex and a public plaza on this parcel, and manage the site for the City of New York.15 It was necessary for title to be transferred to the city because the Local Public Works grants would be applicable only to city construction projects. Also note that the "temporary parking plaza" of the Two-Year Plan had become a "public plaza" in the project proposed for utilization of Local Public Works funds.
Although the small, temporary parking plaza would not be needed if the larger, permanent garage could be built immediately, HUDC must have wanted to build a "public plaza" in order to make the site appear more attractive to financial backers it might interest in its longer range plans for The Tree of Life site. The garage/retail structure would have five levels, 423 parking spaces, and 15,000 square feet of commercial floor area. The entrance and exit to the garage would be on 126th Street, and the stores ("commercial floor area") would front on 125th Street.16 The idea was that from the 125th Street side, the garage shouldn't look like a garage.
In selling the garage idea to the office of Development, HUDC undoubtedly stressed the tremendous economic benefits it believed the garage would bring to Harlem and the city. HUDC felt the garage would become the "carrot" that would attract private developers to 125th Street, and that it would be the "foundation" of the proposed hotel/convention/entertainment complex.17 In addition, according to HUDC, the garage would bring a huge number of jobs to Harlem and the minority community, both for its construction and afterward for the operation of the garage and the retail outlets.18
The garage was also expected to tremendously benefit existing 125th Street stores by enabling shoppers to shop in a more relaxed manner and to buy more than they would if they had to ride the subway. Storeowners along the street seem to support this view, and many supported the proposed garage for this reason.19
The Mayor's Office of Development and the Harlem Urban Development Corporation agreed that net revenues realized from operation of the garage complex would be channelled into a special fund jointly administered by the two. The fund and/or its proceeds would be invested in projects to develop 125th Street, specifically: 1) "Land acquisition and/or preliminary development costs for major commercial projects, 2) Capital improvements to and/or supplemental maintenance of the public right-of-way of West 125th Street", and 3) The maintenance and operation of a cultural pavilion (part of HUDC's plan for the development of 125th Street).20
Without a doubt, the Harlem Urban Development Council was working hard to implement its garage plan and had done much homework. But it had miscalculated community attachment to The Tree of Life bookstore, which occupied a storefront facing 125th Street in the doomed Triboro Building.
IV. The Tree of Life
"..The Tree of Life is not just a store, that's just a front, a convenient ruse to bring people in - no one can make fun of you for going to a store... what's going on behind those doors is that Kanya is talking to people, running yoga classes, meditation, nutrition, herbology, and astrology classes, changing people's lives".21
The above excerpt from an article in The New Sun seems a fairly accurate description of The Tree of Life bookstore, also called the University at the Corner of Lenox Avenue (UCLA), especially as it is viewed by its supporters.
"Kanya" is Kanya KeKumbha, (now known as Kanya Vashon McGhee) The Tree's founder and the center of its activities. He is a former stockbroker christened Norman L. McGhee, Jr.) who, at age 44, (in 1969), started a new full-time profession in what had been his avocation for 20 years&emdash;the study and teaching of metaphysics.22 He started the new business in his apartment, storing books in a closet and sometimes grossing only three dollars a day.23 Around 1971 he sublet booth space in the African Market, a storefront operation in the Triboro Building run by the National Education, Growth, and Rehabilitation Organization (NEGRO). (NEGRO had leased the storefront from New York State, which, as stated previously, had owned the building since the late 1960's. NEGRO, in turn, ssubleased the space in parts to small vendors who set up booths to sell such things as jewelry, black velvet paintings, and other goods. The sign over the storefront entrance read "African Market.")
The Tree has a reading room where people can read books from the shelves with no pressure to buy. Muhammad Ali and Dick Gregory are said to have spent hundreds of dollars in the store,24 and other famous supporters are said to include Lonnie Liston Smith, Ramsey Lewis, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Sun Ra, and Pete Seeger.25 But most of those who keep the store's staff busy are everyday-type Harlemites and people from other parts of the city who seek tangible or intangible things that the store offers and that are difficult to find elsewhere.
Actress Ruby Dee wrote in her "Swinging Gently" column in the New York Amsterdam News,
"I was at the Tree of Life the night of the looting (blackout)...and do you know that the Tree of Life was the only store that stayed open that night because we had nothing to fear? We were open the entire night, and people were reading by candlelight".26
Tree of Life supporters claim that dropouts from the school system who wander into the store develop a thirst for knowledge, and Kanya says that when he taught astrology to sixth graders they eventually asked him to teach them science and mathematics so that they could become better astrologers.27 Kanya feels that children, particularly black children, are turned off by school because it teaches them what they do not want to know; he wants to open a school to teach teachers how to "turn kids on to learning."28 In fact, he plans to expand the Tree of Life extensively to include a Health Food Restaurant, a direct mail operation, and classroom space, and this means renovating the Triboro Building in the process.
He says he has connections from his stockbrokering days who would provide a renovation loan, but that he can only borrow if he has a lease showing his rights to the property. So he wants New York State to grant him a lease for the Triboro Building. Of course, the Harlem Urban Development Corporation's plans to demolish the building threatened these plans. But Kanya was not surprised because throughout his six-year stay in the building he had always known it "would be coming down in the near future."29 Apparently, the Office of General Services ( the State Agency that is "landlord" to the Triboro Building) made this clear to NEGRO when it leased to that organization in 1968.30 Kanya probably learned the building's fate through NEGRO.
HUDC encouraged The Tree of Life to relocate, suggested alternative locations along 125th Street, and offered to lease space to the Tree in the retail portion of the proposed garage complex. The Tree refused relocation, concluding it could not afford to rent a comparable amount of space elsewhere on the street, especially in a new building. Kanya also insists he wants to demonstrate that the Triboro Building is sound stock that should be renovated, not destroyed.31
To this end, he had architects Andrew S. Blackman and Kurt Karmin inspect the building and sketch how it could look after renovation. They found the 47-year old building in "generally good condition" and well-suited for ground-level stores, upper level offices and meeting rooms, and a roof-top restaurant.32 Kanya presents their rendition to anyone interested in future of the Triboro site, and estimates the indicated renovation would cost "less than half a million dollars."33
V. Community Planning Board 10 Reacts
Community Planning Board 10 became involved in the controversy because of its "ULURP" responsibilities&emdash;the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which, under the new city charter, requires community planning board involvement in all city decisions involving real property. Thus, the Board of Estimate could not give the Harlem Urban Development Corporation's garage proposal final approval until the community board held a hearing, reviewed the matter, and submitted recommendations to the City Planning Commission, and until the Commission submitted its own recommendations to the Board of Estimate.34
Because community board membership (members are appointed by the borough president in conjunction with the city councilman) is purposely broad-based, representing various community interests, Community Planning Board 10 held no single position on the proposed garage/retail complex as did HUDC or the Tree of Life. But the community board did play the role of synthesizing seemingly conflicting community desires into a solution that, if implemented, would give both sides most of what they immediately wanted. The garage issue hit the Board 10 like a bomb. Some members supported the garage/retail proposal because of the expected benefits in the form of jobs and economic development, because of a desire to finally build something on at least part of the vacant State Office Building block, and because of the belief that it is foolish for a poor community not to utilize Federal aid when it becomes available.
Others opposed the project on the grounds that garages are aesthetically undesirable, that the garage should be built on a site that the community board had selected for a garage years earlier, and that the Tree of Life was more important to Harlem than a garage would be. Councilman Fred Samuel (an ex officio member of the board) and others were concerned that using Local Public Works funds for garage construction might jeopardize its use for renovation of Harlem Hospital's K Building, a project that many favored.
Matters were worsened by real or exaggerated time pressures. In June and July, Cogsville and Office of Development representative Orville Romney, alluding to Federal funds-use deadlines, urged the board to hold an emergency session and hearing by certain dates.39 The board no doubt resented this pressure and the rubber stamp-like approval that seemed to be asked for.
(My back-tracking indicates that the first of these letters was dated June 9, well before June 27, the date on the application to the City Planning Department that brought the garage proposal into the ULURP process.)
The community board was told that the matter was already on the Board of Estimate Calendar for a late June decision, and that, therefore, the community board had to rush in its recommendation to the Board of Estimate.40 Faced with this confusing, pressurized mess, with the varying viewpoints on its own board, and with the mounting suspicion that HUDC was trying to ram its proposal through, the community board voted to "take no action with regard to the request to endorse the garage," and requested that the Board of Estimate "take only the appropriate action required by law."41
When the official application for the garage proposal was forwarded to the community board from the City Planning Department (in early July), according to the proper ULURP procedures, the board held more discussions and eventually scheduled a hearing for August 3, 1977. Letters poured in to the chairwoman, Noreen Clark Smith, and to board members, including letters of strong endorsement for the garage proposal from Councilman Fred Samuel and Congressman Charles Rangel, and letters from supporters of the Tree of Life begging that that institution be kept alive. The hearing drew a huge crowd, and speakers who favored the Tree of Life predominated. Most were not so much anti-garage as pro-Tree of Life.
Communication generated by the hearing seemed to convince the community board and its chairwoman that there was solid community support in favor of preserving the Tree of Life, and strong forces as well as solid reasoning behind the garage proposal. It also became clear that, through compromise, both sides could be appeased, since the Triboro portion of the parcel wasn't absolutely necessary for construction of the garage.
The community board held a special meeting on August 15 attended by Deputy Commissioner Christopher Lowery of the Office of Planning and Development. Lowery stated that the Triboro site could be deleted from the parcel to be transferred from the state to Kanya KeKumbha (through HUDC and the City), with Kanya receiving a lease from the City and having the option to develop the building within five or ten years. He said HUDC could use some of its funds to help renovate the building. He also said establishing a good working relationship between the community board and the Harlem Urban Development Corporation would be difficult, and that therefore the board might have to call in the City to assure that the conditions of a vote along these lines are adhered to.42
Subsequently, the board took two votes. The first was on whether to recommend construction of the garage, and the vote was 14 for, 10 against, and one abstention. The second vote was for a set of conditions to be attached to the vote, mainly stipulating that The Triboro Building and The Tree of Life be preserved under the conditions generally outlined by Lowery. On this matter, the vote count was 20 for, none against, and two abstentions.43
VI. Subsequent Developments and Present Status
A quick, careless glance at the ULURP steps could suggest that all went smoothly for all parties following Planning Board 10's action on the garage/retail proposal. The City Planning Commission recommended in favor of garage construction, dutifully noting that Board 10 had attached conditions; the Board of Estimate then approved construction, the final ULURP requirement. The state transferred title for the parcel to the City, minus the Triboro site. Construction began in December, and The Tree of Life still stands. So everybody is happy? Not quite. The Tree of Life's future remains too insecure for its supporters to feel comfortable or for some members of Community Planning Board 10 to feel that the board''s impact has been felt strongly enough.
In an effort to comply with the spirit of the community board's double-vote resolution, representatives of the Office of Development met with representatives of the State. Although the State representative agreed to delete the Triboro site from the parcel to be transferred to the city and not to demolish the building at present, it made no long-term commitments regarding the site.
(The State and HUDC did agree to enter into some discussions with the City and the community regarding the long-term future of building.)44 Meanwhile, HUDC is still seeking to interest developers in its plans for a hotel or other facilities on the Triboro site.45
The Tree of Life still wants a lease to strengthen its rights to the Triboro Building and to enable it to obtain a loan renovation. In a December 2 press release. the Tree called the Board of Estimate approval "shameful," "shamfull," and a "display of political chicanery" because it approved the garage/retail plan without guaranteeing the future of the Tree of Life.
As for Community Planning Board 10, some of its members, including Chairwoman Noreen Clark Smith, are enraged because the state did not transfer rights to the Triboro Building to Kanya (through HUDC and the City) as per the community board "mandate." So angry was Ms. Smith that she threatened, at the City Planning Commission hearing October 12, that the community board "might not bother with any more ULURP proceedings" if its will could be circumvented so easily. Another community board member, Dannie Rowell, went further, saying that the mere fact that the Commission saw fit to hold another hearing after the community board's clear recommendation had been made demonstrated that community planning is "a farce."46
VII. Final Comments
Despite lingering dissatisfaction, clearly more people and forces benefitted from the outcome of the 125th Street garage controversy than lost. Harlem will get the economic benefits that the garage should bring&emdash;construction jobs, permanent jobs in the garage and the stores of its retail side, better business for 125th Street storeowners (if their expectations are correct). Harlem also still has The Tree of Life, which plays such a vital role in a community so spiritually and culturally oriented. HUDC got its garage, which, to be sure, was infinitely more important to it than its "public plaza."
And the community board clearly had an impact on events&emdash;I doubt if the Tree of Life would have been saved without the board's hearing, meeting with Lowery, and subsequent recommendations. And clearly the community itself had a much stronger impact on the overall outcome of events than it did in the 1969 State Office Building Controversy.
But events also spelled a major weakness of the ULURP process: when a community board okays a construction project and attaches conditions, the go-ahead vote seems to carry more weight in the subsequent steps than the conditions. The two should be inseparable, since the board might have voted against construction without the conditions.
Also revealed are conflicts that can arise when a state planning agency such as the Urban Development Corporation, accustomed to operating rather independently, finds itself in a ULURP situation.
For the good of Harlem, the community board and HUDC should, in the future, work more closely together, since they're both in the same business&emdash;planning for Harlem. The technical skills of HUDC, combined with the board's closer touch to the people, could be a dynamic combination. The two groups have said they want to work more closely together as a result of the 1977 controversy, and I hope they do, but egos and human nature being what they are, I'll believe it when I see it.
1. Charlayne Hunter, "Response Mixed to State Offer of Aid for Harlem Office Site," New York Times, September 20, 1969.
2. Ibid. Barbara Campbell, "Opponents of Harlem State Office Building Meet", New York Times, Ibid, October 8, 1969.
3. HUDC Two Year Development Plan, p. S-33
4. John Edwards, telephone interview, December 28, 1977.
5. HUDC Two Year Development Plan, p. S-33
6. Harlem; The Next Ten Years: A Proposal for Discussion, The Harlem Urban Development Corporation, pp. 25-28.
7. Harlem; The Next Ten Years: p. 27.
8. HUDC Two Year Development Plan,
9. Ibid., pp S-12, S-16
10. Ibid., p. C-13
11. Ibid., pp S-14, C-13
12. HUDC Two Year Development Plan, p. 13.
13. Calendar of the Board of Estimate of the City of New York, Thursday, December 1, 1977, p. 6.
16. Ibid. p. 9
17. Letter to Noreen Clark, acting chairwoman of Manhattan's Community Planning Board 10, from Donald Cogsville, president of HUDC, August 9, 1977.
18. Harlem Urban Development Corporation, flyer urging people to testify October 12, 1977 City Planning Commission Hearing.
19. Assorted testimony, City Planning Commission Hearing, October 12, 1977.
20. Board of Estimate Calendar, p. 7.
21. Elliot Sobel, "A Tree Grows in Harlem", The New Sun, February, 1977, p. 18
22. A Tree of Life flyer.
25. A Tree of Life flyer.
26. November 19, 1977.
28. Kanya KeKumbha, interview at the Tree of Life, December 23, 1977.
30. Letter to Cogsville from S. Garvey, New York State Office of General Services, August 1, 1977.
31. Kanya interview.
32. Kurt Karmin, statement submitted to New York City Planning Commission, October 12, 1977.
33. Kanya interview.
34. A Charter Revision Guide for Community Board Members, the State Charter Revision Commission for New York City, p. 1.
35. Edward Brown, Community Planning Board 10, interview between June 1977 and January 3, 1978.
Assorted testimony, City Planning Commission Hearing.
36. Charter Revision Guide for Community Board Members.
37. Edwards interview.
38. Brown interviews
39. Letter from Cogsville, June 9, 1977. Letter from Romney, July 5, 1977.
40. Brown interviews.
41. Letter from James B. White, chairman of Community Planning Board 10, to Mayor Abraham Beame, July 15, 1977. (Clark apparently replaced White as board chairperson later in July.)
42. Information filed at office of Community Planning Board 10.
43. Board of Estimate Calendar, p. 7.
45. Cogsville, City Planning Commission Hearing.
46. Rowell, City Planning Commission Hearing.
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