With a development total on the order of 746,300 sf in its 20-year history, the New York City-based Abyssinian Development Corp. is far overshadowed in size by many of the other development names active in the city. But it’s not always about volume alone, and in terms of social outreach, this Harlem-focused developer has had a major impact on the community it serves. In fact, the operation has created more than 1,000 jobs in the neighborhood and is being used as a model for similar “Harlems” around the nation and overseas. It’s most recent project is the Renaissance, an $80-million mixed-use complex that broke ground on 125th Street in the spring. The Renny, as it is known, is part of a four-block community redevelopment plan called the Abyssinian Neighborhood Project surrounding the famed church from which the company gets its name. In a recent exclusive interview, ADC president and CEO Sheena Wright talked about the history of the church, the company it created and the resurrection of Harlem as a cultural center.

GlobeSt.com: Explain the mission of the ADC.

Wright: The mission is about building community. The development corporation was founded by the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which is one of the oldest religious institutions in the country. In fact, we’ll be celebrating our 200th anniversary next year.

GlobeSt.com: A development company founded by a church?

Wright: The church was founded on social justice principals. The founders were worshipping Downtown, and they were discriminated against. So they founded Abyssinian, which is actually the ancient name of Ethiopia, and social justice has been part of the ministry from those early days. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is known for his social justice advocacy on a political realm, but all the church leaders have shared that. In fact, it was his father, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who moved the church to Harlem. The mission has always been that you do the work of the church outside of its walls–feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. So the development corporation was founded by Rev. Calvin Butts in 1987 and we officially incorporated in 1989.

GlobeSt.com: In the past century alone, Harlem’s history has been rich and mercurial.

Wright: The church was here to witness the first Harlem Renaissance–the rise of cultural expression and development and ownership when it moved to Harlem in the ’20s. But it also experienced the subsequent decline–the crack epidemic and the abandonment–and the church had to have a response. The development corporation was that response.

GlobeSt.com: Size the corporation for me, please.

Wright: We own assets valued at about $300 million. We have about 100 apartment buildings and more than 1,500 units as well as the 746,300 sf of commercial space. Every bit of the residential is affordable. We are also the only entity other than the school construction authority to build a school in New York City. In fact, we’re now in the process of building another.

GlobeSt.com: How would you characterize the ADC’s part in the revival of the neighborhood in the past 10 years?

Wright: The development corporation has been a tremendous catalyst for growth and development in Harlem. One of the huge things we are known for is developing and owning the first major commercial development to come to Harlem in more than half a century, which was the Pathmark on 125th Street on the East Side. There could be a mini-series on that development. Pathmark–a major commercial retailer–was not convinced that such an impoverished community could support such a large footprint for commercial development. It’s a city block. In most suburban models the surrounding community had to have a certain socio-economic and educational status before a retailer would invest that amount of dollars in a building that size.

So when Pathmark did their initial studies and drew their little circles around the property, they didn’t know how it was going to work. We convinced them that people would have to buy groceries and there were no supermarkets in Harlem. We convinced them and then the bodega owners rose up and rejected the development. It was a big political and social battle, but it happened and it proved the market. The inner city presented a new way to analyze the success of a major commercial development. Then came Magic Johnson and other major commercial developments. I don’t think anyone saw the transformation happening so quickly and completely.

GlobeSt.com: What still needs to be done?

Wright: There’s still a tremendous amount of work. The last census shows that poverty rates and unemployment are still way too high and education is too low. We still lack a lot of quality services. We still lack quality development and we lack jobs.

I think what people are really afraid of displacement and Harlem’s potential to change significantly. People here see it as a neighborhood and community with a distinct feel, and they’re afraid that will be lost. They don’t want 125th Street to look like 34th Street.

GlobeSt.com: And how do you answer that?

Wright: We look for every opportunity we can to do affordable development–whether it’s housing or commercial. Right now we’re working with another nonprofit on a building on 125th Street between Lennox and Fifth. It’s a great location. There will be ground-floor retail with rents that will be half of what the current market rents would be for that space, with the goal of targeting a community business that will get the exposure of 10,000 people walking past it on any given day. We’ll give that local business an opportunity to grow and develop. We continue to look for opportunities like that.

GlobeSt.com: How is the Renny shaping up?

Wright: It’s a huge initiative for us. It’s going to be a multi-use space with commercial on the ground floor, a cultural space for events as well as live theater and music and 116 mixed-income multifamily ownership units. We’re in the process of demolition now. It’s slated for completion in 2009 at a total cost of about $80 million.

GlobeSt.com: How is it being subsidized?

Wright: The theater portion is being subsidized by city funds we’ve allocated to it as well as a capital-raising campaign that’s under way now. We’re going to use every subsidy we can, including New Market Tax Credits, which we’ve used successfully before.

GlobeSt.com: Is everything being handled by local contractors?

Wright: That’s always a goal, but on an $80-million project, you need a certain size contractor. There are a lot of bonding issues and a lot of our local contractors haven’t been able to grow and develop the way such businesses have been able to in other cities. So you have to use the Bovises and Turners and work with them to make sure they’re using local carpenters, electricians and other trades.

GlobeSt.com: Your focus is Harlem, of course, but the model is being replicated elsewhere, isn’t it?

Wright: We get visits from many other cities. There are a lot of places that are Harlem 15 years ago. We’ve visited neighborhoods outside of Chicago and in Atlanta and Washington, DC, and they’ve asked us for guidance. We’ve also had visitors from China and South Africa who were considering developing empowerment zones. I asked the South African delegation why they wanted to visit us, and one of the officials said that the township of Soweto in South Africa has two million residents and no supermarket. They wanted to know how the ADC was able to ensure that the community owned the supermarket. They wanted to know how we made sure the supermarket chains were held accountable for jobs. That’s part of the model we want to replicate.

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