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What Hath Whole Foods Wrought? 125th Street Grapples With History Amid Retail Transformation

Harlem’s 125th Street is home to landmarks like the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, where titans of African-American culture, from Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder to Lauryn Hill and Chris Rock, have performed. These days, it is also a bustling retail strip, with names like H&M, Whole Foods and Victoria’s Secret either open on the street or soon to arrive.

Whole Foods on 125th Street

While preserving the unique look, feel and culture of Harlem, and honoring its history, is imperative to those who live and work there, there are practical realities that make it enormously challenging. While some in the community want local retailers, restaurants and small businesses to fill available spaces, landlords have largely looked for national retailers with large balance sheets instead.

"It sounds nice to have the local tenants there, but they can’t pay the rents and people want the goods the national brands can bring,” Cushman & Wakefield Senior Director Alan Napack said. “125th Street is the major high street in Harlem, which attracts more of the high street tenants."

A rezoning 10 years ago paved the way for taller buildings on the street. At least 10 projects with a value of between $14M and $95M were finished between 2011 and 2017, the New York Times reported last year. There are another 10 projects — some of which have budgets in excess of $100M — under construction, according to the Times.

Last July, Whole Foods opened as the anchor tenant at the 200K SF building Jeff Sutton built at 100 West 125th St. Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works are taking 36K SF at 112 West 125th St. next door. Chipotle announced earlier this year it will be opening its first Harlem location in a 2,500 SF space at 72 West 125th St.

Sephora and Macy’s have both been rumored to be considering taking space on the street as well.

View of Harlem storefronts, 1939

“As much as I hear in my left ear the local community people who want to have arts and culture … I’m hired to do a specific job, and that’s to find the best tenant that will amenitze the building,” said Colliers International broker Eric Yarbro, who is working with a large-scale retail tenant seeking around 15K SF in the area.

Yarbro, who lives in the area, is also the co-leasing agent for the 100-year-old Victoria Theater at 125th Street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, which is being redeveloped to feature 24K SF of retail space, 191 residential units and a Renaissance by Marriott hotel. He said he has been able to secure a local tenant to take some of the Victoria Theater space.

Barbara Askins, the president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District she created in 1993, said the organization is trying to create opportunities that will bring local retailers to the mix.

But, she noted, development along the strip has been in the making for years, and the retail industry has shifted dramatically. Stores in Harlem face the same challenges as the rest of the city.

“We look at pedestrian footfall, and we still have an average of 850,000 people per month on one corner. Those are not bad numbers,” she said. Seeing the development of 125th Street "is very exciting, but [online retail] does present a new set of challenges … I think everybody is still doing a dance and trying to figure [it] out.”

The conundrum is not lost on the people who live there.

Harlem resident Yvette Cruse

Lifelong Harlem resident Yvette Cruse said she is happy to see national brands coming to the street, although she worries about what is happening to small, local businesses.

“I would like to see a mix of both,” she said. “But it’s great not having to go downtown, and it is especially good to have the Whole Foods for the fruit and vegetables."

Whole Foods' presence on 125th Street has been a boon for all retail in the area.

“When people are adding value to neighborhood and community, I think that’s a good thing … People have to be amenable to change,” said Marcus & Millichap broker Seth Glasser, who specializes in the Northern Manhattan multifamily market. “If you walk up and down 125th Street, there are just as many people, if not more, as on 34th Street. The population is definitely there."

Farther down 125th Street, East Harlem has certainly seen a flurry of activity in recent years. Blumenfeld Development Group is building 200 units at a Bjarke Ingels-designed building at East 126th Street between Lexington and Third avenues. Gary Barnett’s Extell Development paid $70M in 2014 to form a two-site assemblage at Lexington and Third avenues and East 124th and East 125th streets.

Last year, the Durst Organization bought a site at East 125th Street and Park Avenue to add to the vacant lot it bought for $91M from Ian Bruce Eichner in 2016.

Colliers International broker Zach Nathan believes the proposed development in East Harlem will attract more tenants.

“There’s more of a reason for retailers to look east, when, traditionally, the heart of the market was between Lenox and St. Nicholas,” he said.

Mural on 125th Street, Harlem

But Harlem broker Holley Drakeford, who runs Drakeford Realty Group, pointed out those developments have yet to come to fruition. He said the renovated Corn Exchange Building at 121 East 125th St. has not had a new tenant in three years.

There are many people, Drakeford said, who are still figuring out the East Harlem rezoning that the city council approved in November.

“Until those guys make some moves, not much is going to happen on [East] 125th Street,” he said of Durst and Barnett. “Most people do not do shopping east of Fifth Avenue … There’s an element that prevents people wanting to be on the East 125th Street corridor.”

For brokers like Colliers' Yarbro, their job is about looking forward, not just back.

“Certain stakeholders want to advocate for cultural uses [of space],” he said. “I say this amenity is needed in Harlem, the store has the ability to hire local people, they can do community outreach, and it will have sustainability and loyalty within in the community."

Travis Gonzalez contributed reporting to this story.