Harlem’s Growth Spurt Won’t Be Slowing Down Anytime Soon

Like it or not, Harlem is starting to look more and more like every other neighborhood in the borough.

It’s been nearly a decade since the city approved a rezoning proposal centered around Harlem’s 125th Street, despite a fair amount of neighborhood opposition at the time. The proposal, approved in 2008, allowed buildings as tall as 30 stories in some areas. Previous zoning regulations which capped buildings typically around 5-6 stories kept the construction of new luxury condo buildings, for the most part, at bay.

In a statement in 2008, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the changes would improve the neighborhood. “Not only does the plan lay the foundation for economic growth on Harlem’s Main Street, but also it preserves its noted brownstones and reinforces its arts and culture heritage,” he said. In other words, the city’s plans were meant to highlight the neighborhood’s unique culture, not destroy it.

Critics weren’t so sure. “The lack of height limit and implementation of [low] floor area ratio kept the height limit to six stories,” writer, historian and Harlem resident Michael Henry Adams told the Commercial Observer. “Now the new height limit is 20 stories if you have a cultural facility on the lower floor. There are going to be all these facilities like a black Harlem heritage Disneyland. But where will the black people be? Gone.”

Almost ten years and one economic recession later, the development—and gentrification—in Harlem is notable. After all, nothing marks gentrification like the arrival of a Whole Foods to the neighborhood, right?


And a Whole Foods there will be. The store was announced in 2012, and it will be the anchor tenant to a 200,000-square-foot building located at 100 West 125th Street. After a series of delays, the store is expected to open this summer. Along with the grocery store, tenants of the building include American Eagle, Burlington Coat Factory, Olive Garden, and TD Bank. The site is being developed by Wharton Properties and was recently refinanced for $125 million, provided by JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley.

The ‘Whole Foods Effect’

These claims of a changing neighborhood post-Whole Foods are not without base. In a January study, property listing site Zillow found that homes within a mile of a Whole Foods store appreciate faster on average than those further away. Specifically, between 1997 and 2014, homes near a Whole Foods appreciated an average of 140 percent. For reference, the typical home in the United States appreciated by 71 percent over the same period.

While home prices in Harlem have certainly been rising steadily over the past decade, Harlem’s average price per square foot has still remained less than that of Brooklyn, and even half the price of some neighborhoods in Manhattan. But already the opportunity to capitalize on the changing demographics is apparent.
“There’s a one-bedroom two blocks away for $1,800,” Citi Habitats broker Chyann Sapp told the New York Post. “And the owner said that once Whole Foods opens he thinks he could easily get $2,000, $2,100 for it.”

Involving the Community

At least one new development was designed with the community’s needs in mind, including repurposing the façade of the iconic Victoria theatre. In its prime, the theatre served as a vaudeville house but has been shuttered since 1989. Located at 233 West 125th Street, the $178-million development will house 191 mixed-income apartments, a Marriott Renaissance hotel with 210 keys, 25,000 SF of retail and 25,000 SF of cultural space, in the form of two theatres.

The development will create an estimated 1,625 jobs, with a high number of those being earmarked for local residents. Thirty percent of construction contracts will be given to local minority and/or women-owned businesses.