THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By Melanie Lefkowitz
When Taso Mastakouris, the owner of a grocery store on the Upper West Side, was looking to expand into a new location, he didn't really consider East Harlem.
Then a customer, Nina DeMartini-Day, talked him into taking space in buildings she co-owns on East 125th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues.
"We just desperately wanted fresh food in the community, and had a lot of offers for the space that were more traditional 125th Street stores, and we just kept looking and looking and looking," says Ms. DeMartini-Day, a developer. "It was a relative risk to come into a neighborhood he wasn't familiar in, and he put a huge investment into the store," she says of Mr. Mastakouris.
The grocery, Wild Olive Market, opened about a year ago in space formerly occupied by a 99-cent store and an African fabric shop, is one of a flurry of new arrivals on its historic stretch of East 125th Street: Sade Skincare, a cosmetics shop; Island Salad, a health-food café; and the Brownstone, a clothing boutique, are among its neighbors.
Some business owners have dubbed the strip "the New Harlem East." It contrasts with the many cellphone-, linen- and sneaker-store-lined strips nearby.
"Every neighborhood needs and wants fresh and original and locally owned products, and they will support them," Ms. DeMartini-Day says.
The development that has transformed swaths of upper Manhattan has been slower to come to East Harlem. City-backed plans to create a 1.7-million-square-foot mixed-use complex known as the East Harlem Media, Educational and Cultural Center were delayed after the economic downturn.
But the first phase of that project, a building with 49 affordable-housing units and 5,600 square feet of retail space, is now under way at East 125th Street and Third Avenue, and is expected to be completed this summer. The developer is looking for retail tenants "that would enhance the current mix," says Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for the New York City Economic Development Corp.
East 125th Street was part of a rezoning approved by the City Council in 2008; most changes from that rezoning—which includes a restriction on the number of street-level stores that may be occupied by banks and offices and a requirement that large developments incorporate arts uses—have yet to materialize, in part because of the downturn.
Officials at the city Planning Department say that over the past year they have seen increased interest in commercial development along the street, including from Applebee's, which recently opened a restaurant at Fifth Avenue.
Meanwhile, several new condominium and rental buildings have sprouted nearby. Fifth on the Park, a 158-unit condominium building at 120th Street, is selling about six to eight apartments a month, says Stephen Kliegerman, executive director of Halstead Property Development Marketing.
"There's a lot more retail filling in all over the place," he says. "Buyers don't just buy into a building—they buy into a neighborhood, so having more retail options is a big sell."
The Tapestry, a 185-unit rental building with affordable and market-rate apartments opened last year at East 124th Street and Second Avenue.
Wild Olive's manager, Tenisha Sterling, says the market has been asked if it could deliver to the Tapestry.
"We really get personal with our customers; we talk with them to see where they're coming from, and a lot of them are from the condos that are coming in," she says. The neighborhood, she says, "is changing; it's getting better fast, it's not like a 10-year turnaround."
Across the street from Wild Olive, Sade Skincare opened in February, the latest business to relocate to the strip.
Two other storefronts on the block are being renovated, amid talk that a vegetarian restaurant is on the way.
Princess Jenkins, owner of the Brownstone, recalled that when she moved to East 125th Street from a brownstone on Fifth Avenue in 2007, there was limited variety in the area's retail stores.
"Now we have an eclectic new block of businesses; it's great," she says. "The block took on new life."