Clinton in Harlem: He Provides Anchor for New Landlords

On Feb. 3, former President Bill Clinton stood on a Park Avenue sidewalk, near 54th Street, and told a throng of press that he was close to a deal to rent office space in Carnegie Hill Tower, a luxury high-rise on 57th Street. “I’m not going to let the taxpayer get gigged on this,” Mr. Clinton said, “but, I mean, it’s New York.”

On Feb. 13, after a conversation with his friend Vernon Jordan and his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a chastened Mr. Clinton emerged from behind a dark glass door at 55 West 125th Street in Harlem to announce a change of heart. “I have decided to locate my office in this building,” he told the mob of reporters and cameramen, and an ecstatic throng of passers-by. “If,” he cautioned, “we can work it out.”

“For the former President to be working on 125th Street,” said Democratic State Senator David Paterson, “I would equate it with man walking on the moon.”

If that’s the equation, then Charles Rangel is the equivalent of Michael Collins, the pilot of Apollo 11. For it was Mr. Rangel, the longtime Harlem Congressman who helped launch Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate candidacy, who brought Mr. Clinton on his unprecedented journey uptown. Except for the Harlem empowerment zone, Mr. Clinton is effectively the biggest piece of pork Mr. Rangel ever brought back to his Congressional district. Having a high-profile former President in Harlem not only changes the way in which the power elite views its little island, but could also transform the business corridor along Harlem’s most famous street.

Mr. Rangel said that when Mr. Clinton called him at home on Feb. 9 to inquire about space in Harlem, he thought immediately of the building at 125th Street. Mr. Rangel himself had offices in the building when it opened 20 years ago, and in urging Mr. Clinton to locate there shortly after last fall’s election, he’d reminded the President of the large rally his wife had held on the block just before Election Day.

“Harlem was always there for the President, and it was the birthplace of the Hillary Clinton political campaign,” the Congressman said. “Whenever [business] people are thinking about coming to Harlem, they want to know who’s there. Now we got a President.”

For Mr. Clinton, Harlem offers nothing but positives. Instead of a suite of offices in Carnegie Tower costing taxpayers at least $750,000 a year, Mr. Clinton will make do with office space costing about $200,000. He will be welcome in a neighborhood that clearly loves him-the crowd on 125th Street cheered his every move and word. Those midtown Manhattan social arbiters who have been talking trash about the Marc Rich pardon-well, they needn’t worry about bumping into the former President at the Four Seasons and wondering what to say and how to say it. Mr. Clinton will chow down at Sylvia’s, thank you very much.

And Mr. Clinton can enjoy a few private chuckles over the misery he’s causing the midtown masters of the media, who believe in the power and the glory of their little neighborhood. When Mr. Clinton seemed destined for Carnegie Tower, the midtown power elite was pleased in an ever-so-condescending way. Where else, after all, would a youthful, vital former President base his operations but in midtown Manhattan? Now, Mr. Clinton has decided to build his center of power 75 blocks from the so-called center of the universe. Yes, Mr. Clinton will enjoy their discomfort.

It was clear during the Harlem press conference that the President needn’t worry about his new neighbors. The Rich pardon, the headlines about dubiously acquired flatware-they simply didn’t exist. After he finished speaking, Mr. Clinton plowed through the crowd, shaking hands and high-fiving as he went.

“You go, Bill! You go!” shouted one onlooker.

“We love you, Bill! You’re still our President!” said another. A pregnant woman asked Mr. Clinton to rub her belly for good luck. Mr. Clinton ducked inside a restaurant, Bayou, for lunch; the crowd built steadily for the hour and a half he was inside.

Meanwhile, back at the reception desk at 55 West 125th Street, dreadlocked security guard Leonard Terry was rubbing his eyes. “Trying to bring down the stress,” he said. He’d heard about the big secret two days before, and Mr. Clinton’s visit had given him his first taste of how life at the building was about to change. “It’ll be a little more hectic,” he said, “so I hope they give me a little bit more pay.”

When Mr. Rangel was trying to come up with a Harlem office building for Mr. Clinton, there wasn’t exactly a long list from which to choose. In fact, 55 West 125th Street is the only building classified as Class A in the entire neighborhood. Its story encapsulates, in a way, the recent history of Harlem. It was built in the 1970’s by Charles A. Vincent, a political figure who served in the Nixon administration. Mr. Vincent eventually ran into financial problems, and the building was sold to absentee owners, who let it deteriorate. In 1998, Steven C. Williams, a local real estate investor and a board member of the now-disbanded Harlem Development Corporation, bought the building in a partnership with the Cogswell Realty Group. The new owners have spruced it up in an attempt to harness the momentum of recent development along and near 125th Street.

Today, the building houses a number of government agencies, charitable foundations, and Local 420 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees-a far cry from the tenants in Carnegie Hall Tower, who included Steve Case, Barry Diller and assorted other luminaries, but a natural constituency all the same.

A Brief Tour

Mr. Clinton’s tour of the building took him past Mr. Terry, the security guard, through the building’s beige marbled lobby and past an Alvin Hollingsworth mural picturing women dancers in African headdresses. He saw the 12th floor, painted blue with frescos of fish around the walls, and the 14th, with its views of Central Park and midtown beyond. If he looked closely out the window, Mr. Clinton might have been able to see Carnegie Hall Tower, which captivated him with its own views of the park-looking south to north, instead of north to south.

If Mr. Clinton noticed the considerable luxury differential between this building and Carnegie Hall Tower-the building is suffused with a faint deli smell, and the elevators, though new, are erratic-he didn’t let on.

“He just kept saying, ‘This is wonderful,'” said Cogswell’s Michael Skurnick, who showed him around.

For a few hours, there seemed like there might be a problem in the works-the 14th floor, which is only around 8,000 square feet and thus perfect for Mr. Clinton’s purposes, was leased in December to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s press office, sounding agitated, let it be known that the Mayor would address the issue at his daily press conference. But when the moment arrived, Mr. Giuliani was downright conciliatory.

“We are certainly willing to listen to an offer. Maybe they can make us an offer we can’t refuse,” he said, embarking, as is his custom, on a Godfather riff. “I think it would be a very good thing for the former President to have office space in New York. I think it would be particularly good for him to have it in Harlem. We would like to accommodate that interest, but we can’t be unmindful of the concerns of the children, either.”

On the way off the 12th floor, Mr. Clinton introduced himself to receptionist Deborah Davis. “He said he would be up on the 14th floor and visiting us often,” Ms. Davis said.

That wasn’t, of course, the plan as of a week ago. Mr. Clinton settled on Carnegie Hall Tower in January, and officials from the federal General Services Administration were in the late stages of lease negotiations with the building’s owner, the Rockrose Development Corporation, when Mr. Clinton decided to move uptown.

And the power map of Manhattan shifted accordingly.

-Additional reporting by Elisabeth Franck, Rebecca Traister, Greg Sargent and Andrea Bernstein.