The Uptowner
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The Uptowner

“Too Many Humans”: Harlem Gets a Renaissance Hotel on 125th Street

By Cayla Bamberger

Above the historic Victoria Theater, the new construction at 233 W. 125th Street looks out of place. Twenty-six stories tall, the high-rise dwarfs other buildings on the block. Scribbled on the construction site’s fence, a bit of bitter graffiti reads: “Too many humans and not enuf souls.”

Renaissance Hotels, a Marriott division, plans to open its fifth Manhattan location next year between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards. Attached to the historic Victoria, it will have 211 rooms, according to Lee & Associates, the real estate firm handling the project.

The Renaissance will be the neighborhood’s second hotel from a major chain, following another Marriott affiliate, Aloft, which opened in 2010 on 124th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

The Victoria, an iconic Harlem destination, opened in 1917 and became one of the four vaudeville houses (alongside the Apollo, the Harlem Opera House and the Alhambra) on Harlem’s “Opera Row.” It hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington. Sold in 1977, it briefly reopened as a multi-screen movie theater in 1987, then shuttered in 1989.

In a nod to the Victoria’s rich history, Marriott will retain the theater’s terra cotta interior and restore elements of its lobby for the hotel entrance.

What this project ultimately means for Harlem, however, remains uncertain. Despite ongoing gentrification from white newcomers, Harlem remains about 57% black and 24% Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau. Several local residents expressed fear that increased tourism will dilute Harlem’s culture.

“It might be good for small business,” said Jacob Soto, 26, a server and lifelong Harlem resident, who lives five blocks away. But he added, “I feel like tourism is going to break up the community and make it more of a spectacle of sorts.”

While he noted the importance of development, Soto expressed reservations: “When things like hotels or attractions show up in your neighborhood out of nowhere, that’s when rent prices spike, grocery prices spike, and next thing you know, no one can afford their actual neighborhoods.”

“It’s going to draw more people to Harlem — more people of different cultures,” said Sheila Black, a vendor on 125th Street, who has sold fashion accessories in Harlem since 2013.

However, Black is concerned that development will drive out vendors. “If it weren’t for the vendors, the Marriott wouldn’t be here,” said Black, who believes visitors come to Harlem partly for the local stands. “By removing the vendors, you’re removing that authenticity and history.”

But while some people sound unnerved by the prospect of a changed Harlem, others maintain that the hotel’s impact should be favorable.

“Renaissance Hotels doesn’t just design its hotels for travelers, but as a place for the neighborhood and its locals,” said Dara Toulch, a spokesperson for Marriott Renaissance Hotels, in an email. “The brand knows that’s where its travelers want to be — where the locals go.”

“The project… is expected to create approximately 373 permanent jobs,” the Empire State Development Corporation said. Harlem’s unemployment rate at 8% is higher than the Manhattan average of 5%, according to the most recent census data.

“If you just look at the hotel itself, the impact should be positive,” said Lynn Minnaert, academic director at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University. “There should be additional demand for [the community’s] services, rather than a challenge.”

As for locals’ fears, “a lot of tourists that do come and stay in the area have a stake in that culture remaining and preserving what’s special about that place,” Minnaert said. “The visitors that it’ll attract will not be the type that wants to see it become the new Times Square.”

The hotel is part of the larger Victoria Theater Redevelopment project, which will also include up to 229 units of rental housing (half of them affordable housing), retail space and an arts center, said the Empire State Development Corporation in an email.

Harlem Community Development Corporation’s board, which includes all the elected officials who represent the neighborhood in city, state and federal government, approved the construction.

The 25,000-square-foot arts facility will house two performance spaces and offices for several arts organizations — the Apollo Theater Foundation, JazzMobile, the Classical Theater of Harlem and Harlem Arts Alliance, announced the Apollo Theater Foundation, which will manage the center. The redevelopment project began in 2004; after numerous delays, the project finally broke ground in April 2018.

The $178 million project, designed by Aufgang Architects, was sponsored by the Harlem Community Development Corporation and financed by Goldman Sachs and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.

(Photos by Cayla Bamberger)

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The Uptowner

The Uptowner

Produced by Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism students. Editors — Paula Span and Alexis Clark. (Original publication dates at theuptowner.org)