East Harlem business owners await eminent domain decision

Area will no longer be "black capital of the world" if city has its way, plaintiffs' attorney argues

213-223 East 125th Street in East Harlem (inset: Adam Leitman Bailey)
213-223 East 125th Street in East Harlem (inset: Adam Leitman Bailey)

Small business owners in East Harlem are anxiously awaiting a New York State Supreme Court decision on their fate, after they sued the city for attempting to seize the land where they operate through eminent domain. An attorney for the plaintiffs describes the city’s actions as racist.

At a hearing earlier this month, real estate attorney Adam Leitman Bailey, who is representing the businesses, argued that taking the land, stretching from 125th to 126th streets and Second Avenue to Third Avenue, would further imperil Manhattan’s already endangered minority-owned business community. Bailey went so far as to claim the city is unfairly targeting them while ignoring 282 already vacant lots in Manhattan.

“The only reason they are taking this is because — this may be out of order, but you don’t Take 38th Street to 41st [on] First Avenue because that’s really where the white people reside,” he said in the hearing. “You are going after the last black area. It is disgusting, to be blunt.”

The businesses affected include the New Light Baptist Church, Fancy Cleaners, a hair-braiding salon, a recycling center, an auto repair shop and others.

Counsel for the city, Michael Chestnov, responded by saying that even if the results of a land seizure are discriminatory, the businesses cannot claim racial discrimination unless they show that the discrimination was intentional.

In 2009, the area in question was condemned by the city as blighted. The determination was challenged, and the New York First Appellate Division denied the challenge in October 2010. The Court of Appeals then determined that it did not have jurisdiction on the matter in February 2011.

While the Bloomberg Administration had a plan to erect an East Harlem Media, Entertainment and Cultural Center on the site, the de Blasio administration has not announced plans for the site, and is instead moving forward with the land seizure without defining a clear purpose for it.

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One reason for the rush appears to be a statute of limitations issue.

The city did not move forward with its current attempt to acquire the land until February 2014. The law is that the city must commence its eminent domain proceedings within three years after the “entry of the final order or judgment on judicial review.”

The businesses argue that the city missed its deadline, and that the clock started in October 2010, while the city argues that the Court of Appeals dismissal determining that it lacked jurisdiction in February 2011 counts as the final order, keeping its action within the allowed timeframe.

The city did not respond immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It is a funeral for Harlem if they win,” Bailey told The Real Deal this week. [De Blasio] is doing this to gentrify Harlem and kick out the last black businesses. Harlem will no longer be the black capital of the world.”

A decision is expected by July, though the losing side is likely to appeal.

Another owner in the area, Heron Real Estate, filed a parallel suit seeking to stop the condemnation last year.