no parking

Locked Out: Key Needed for This Unofficial Park in Harlem

A green space on West 148th Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boulevards is always locked, and can be accessed only by some residents and building superintendents who have keys, June 24, 2019.
A green space on West 148th Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boulevards is always locked, and can be accessed only by some residents and building superintendents who have keys, June 24, 2019. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

On West 148th Street in Harlem, one block holds an urban oasis: a space with a few trees, benches, chess tables and grass.

It’s an unofficial park. But good luck getting inside.

That’s because the space between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boulevards is locked around the clock in a murky arrangement left over from a deal made with the city in 2002.

“Only a certain amount of people have keys,” said Thierry Royo, a resident of the block for seven years, who likened the stretch of green to “a private park.”

The three vacant lots that comprise the expanse were among 11 city-owned properties on West 148th Street signed over to a developer in a deal to revitalize West Harlem under the broader Bradhurst Urban Renewal Plan.

According to the 2002 deal, L+M Development Partners and its local nonprofit partner, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, paid $318,000 for the half-block of city property.

The outfits were charged with renovating existing buildings to create income-restricted co-ops, records show.

The agreement also laid out what would happen to the park-like patch: It was to be preserved “in perpetuity as open space for residents…and the surrounding community.”

But that’s not quite how things worked out.

Promoted Like Gramercy Park

When Royo bought his co-op, he was told his building, called The Washington, would have exclusive access to the open space.

“It was one of the perks, one of the assets,” he said.

His neighbor Wendy Frank had the same experience when she bought her co-op there in 2004.

“Realtors promoted the co-op units with a key to the park like it was Gramercy Park,” she said.

The lock on the green space on West 148th Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boulevards, June 24, 2019.
The lock on the green space on West 148th Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boulevards, June 24, 2019. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

For years, the space was landscaped and maintained by residents of The Washington, said co-op shareholder David Danvers, who bought an apartment there in 2004.

“It was just a serene place where you could go and relax,” he said.

In the last two or three years, a handful of supers on the block have gotten keys — and those in the know reserve the space through an unofficial network of key-holders, local residents say.

The whole thing has become a “big secret,” Frank said.

“People are like, ‘Oh, don’t tell anyone how you get a key because then a lot of people will use it,’ ” she said.

But even with that gate-keeping, newcomers have brought problems, Danvers said.

“People were going in there and barbecuing, leaving their trash and so forth. They had their pets going in there, defecating all over the shrubbery,” he said.

‘Absolutely No Information’

The change at the park space coincided with a shift in the lot’s ownership, locals say.

In 2016, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement became the sole owner when L+M signed the deed for the lot over to the group, records show.

Transferring the open space to HCCI was the intention from the outset of the project, a spokesperson for L+M said. The original agreement stipulates L+M was allowed to turn over the land to no other entity but HCCI.

The transfer, made in December of 2016, came at a bad time for the nonprofit: A month earlier, news broke that HCCI’s leaders were under investigation for financial misconduct. Its then-president, Derek Broomes, later pled guilty to federal embezzlement charges.

The timing of the transfer was coincidental, L+M said.

HCCI is now responsible for the open space, but often absent when needed, residents said.

“There’s absolutely no information about how you get a key, or who mows the lawn, who maintains it, nothing,” said Frank.

HCCI officials told THE CITY workers clean the space three times a week. They said they plan to overhaul the park, but are looking for funding.

Malcolm Punter, HCCI’s current president, said the group has done “substantial and ongoing community engagement” with the intention of renovating the open space for the community. In 2017 and 2018, the group conducted three meetings with MUD Workshop, a local urban design group, to “obtain a consensus on a way to program and physically improve the space,” he said in an email.

During that time, Danvers saw designs. But since then, he’s heard nothing.

“They drew up plans. They gave everybody the plans,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, everybody just went radio silent.”

Funding Sought for Fix-up

Punter said his group intended to begin renovations of the space last summer, but put that on hold while The Washington co-op moves forward with foundation repairs that could interrupt park construction. Still, HCCI doesn’t have the money to fix up the park, he said.

“HCCI is in need of funding for the restoration work for the open space,” he said. The group is planning to apply for money through the City Council next year.

Royo is less concerned about keeping the park space for himself, or for his building, than getting it out of the “gray area” it’s in now.

“It’s fine if other people can benefit from this space,” he said.

He would see it “turned into an actual community and public space with rules to ensure civility,” like posted hours of use, and whether smoking or pets would be allowed.

“I would like it to be beautified and improved,” Royo said.

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