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In a Changing Harlem, Two Groups Cry Foul

Nonprofit Battles NBA Union in Property Lawsuit

By Michelle Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page A03

NEW YORK -- The deal seemed like a coup for Harlem kids. Last year, the NBA Players Association, a union of men regarded with godlike reverence among neighborhood kids, purchased a building situated on a prime corner in the heart of Harlem's commercial district for its headquarters.

The three-story building is also home to the Valley, a celebrated youth group with deep ties in the community. Steve Lawrence, an administrator for the organization, imagined basketball tournaments to raise money for scholarships, pairing local kids with players in mentorship programs. "It was an exciting opportunity for young people to see their role models," Lawrence said. "Who lives here but NBA fans?"

Justin Braggs, 17, right, with friends, talks during a rap session at the Valley, a Harlem youth group that has sued the NBA Players Association for $10 million, accusing it of mounting a harassment campaign to push the Valley out of its offices on a Harlem building's third floor. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

That was last year. Now, the union and the Valley are embroiled in a legal battle that is unfolding before a backdrop of a changing Harlem, the unofficial capital of African American political and cultural life.

Just across the street from the building is a new Staples and a Marshall's, and there is a Starbucks on the corner. Young, black professionals have scooped up $1 million brownstones. The changes and newcomers have raised the question here of to what extent the second Harlem renaissance will squeeze out those who persevered through the lean decades.

In May, the NBA union, operating under the name Home Court Development Corp., lobbed a series of eviction notices at the Valley, citing rent delinquency, permit violations and refusal to allow its engineers onto the premises, all of which were later withdrawn.

The Valley recently sued the NBA Players Association for $10 million, accusing its landlord of mounting a harassment campaign to push the Valley out of its offices on the building's third floor.

"It's a hostile takeover," Lawrence said. "They have unlimited resources at their disposal, and we have limited."

The union calls the Valley a bad tenant that began "squatting" on its second-floor office space after a separate lease for those offices expired in May. That same month, the union, angered that the group had delayed its plans to move uptown, began cracking down on the Valley's lease obligations on the third-floor space, sending a flurry of eviction notices. The union says the youth group began falling behind on $16,000-a-month rent for the third-floor offices.

"Just because we are the NBA Players Association doesn't give anyone the right to get free rent," said Dan Wasserman, spokesman for the NBA Players Association. The union has not increased the rent, and he said the Valley's lawsuit was a ploy to elicit public sympathy and detract from its record as an unreliable tenant.

The two sides recently settled the dispute over the second floor with the Valley agreeing to move out this month and pay several months of back rent. But the Valley has vowed to push ahead with its lawsuit, believing the union will continue its attempt to seize the third floor before the lease expires. The Valley has asked the court to dismiss the latest eviction notices and prevent the union from attempting to terminate its lease on what it called "technicalities."

The Valley says it cannot afford to move to other offices in the neighborhood, and the organization wants to continue serving Harlem youth. It has few other options than to stay put and fight to keep its lease on the third floor.

"We are not exempt from the effects of gentrification," Lawrence said. "For the money we have, there are no more comparable spaces."

Harlem's downtown is now known as the "platinum zone." Nonprofits face a commercial real estate market that commands an average of $26 a square foot, said Suzanne Sunshine, director of the nonprofit division of the real estate company Cushman & Wakefield. With those rates, the Valley's office space could fetch as much as $200,000 a month.

"It would be cheaper to locate in Lower Manhattan, Wall Street or Midtown South than Harlem," she said. But the Valley, with its tutoring, counseling and leadership courses, serves a neighborhood it cannot leave. "They are a captive audience of Harlem, so they are basically paying higher rents."

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