Harlem's Metro-North sketchy underbelly slated for $6M facelift



By Jan Ransom

The city is looking to lift up a seedy East Harlem stretch that has long seemed to suffer from terminal malaise.

The sketchy, poorly lit intersection under the Metro-North Railroad viaduct at E. 125th St. and Park Ave. appeared to have been forgotten in the midst of Harlem’s renaissance, but now it’s been slated for a serious makeover.

The city envisions a transportation hub with shops, restaurants, urban furniture and a farmers’ market, dotted with public art and trees to liven the space.

“We really want to focus on that space and make it into a community amenity and a worldly gateway to Harlem,” said Adam Meagher, vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corp.

The organization expects to shell out roughly $2.6 million to rehab a vacant comfort station beneath the viaduct where the homeless now seek refuge along the walls of the building, and another $3.5 million on pedestrian safety improvements like better lighting and a station plaza.

Oh, and thanks to a local merchants group, the homeless will be paid to keep the area clean.

The city expects to begin soliciting proposals and selecting a design team this spring, with hopes of completing construction by 2016.

The so-called Public Realm project will focus on E. 124th St. to E. 126th St. and the intersection of Park Ave. and E. 125th St.

The improvements will coincide with the redevelopment of the long-vacant Corn Exchange Building on the southwest corner of 125th St and Park Ave., a $17 million project that will update and enlarge the landmarked 1883 eyesore, netting more than 30,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.

To help freshen up that project’s bedraggled surroundings, the city teamed with local groups including New East Harlem Merchants Association Inc., which received a $100,000 city grant to reactivate and clean the space below the station.

“E. 125th St. is extremely run-down,” said Kwanza Smith, head of the New East Harlem Merchants Association, adding that improvements to the intersection will help local businesses by making the area more attractive.

Smith — whose group hatched an unorthodox scheme last year to hire homeless people to clean the sidewalks and pick up litter along the oft-neglected stretch of E. 125th St. — said some of the grant money will be used to pay for the program.

The whole effort will make the area more attactive to pedestrians and help local merchants, Smith said, describing a thoroughfare where passersby shop for produce and other items while sweet jazz music plays in the background.

Meagher sounded a similar tune.

“E. 125th St. has needed that kind of attention for a long time,” he said. “It’s typically been a space that you want to get out of as soon as possible.”