By Orlando Lee Rodriguez
Anyone who knows New York City and its romance with baseball will tell you that in the 1940s and 50s, the fight for the National League pennant was basically a battle between the team from Harlem’s Polo Grounds and the one from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.
In fact, from 1947 — the year Dodger Jackie Robinson broke the color line — and 1957, the year both teams moved to California, Harlem’s New York Giants and Flatbush’s Brooklyn Dodgers won the National League pennant eight times between them.
Between 1951 — Giants’ Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” moment — and 1956, either the Dodgers or the Giants were the National League Champion every single year. But it was mostly Brooklyn that got the best of their uptown rivals, six pennants to two.
Today, the same can be said for New York City real estate. Brooklyn is the talk of the brokerage town, while Harlem, the recipient of some fanfare, has not to this point dimmed Brooklyn’s spotlight.
In the midst of this real estate rivalry sits Eugene Giscombe, the founder and chief executive officer of the Giscombe Realty Group, one of Harlem’s only firms specializing in commercial real estate.
Responsible for the majority of commercial leases along 125th Street, Giscombe said that Harlem has the goods to give Brooklyn a run for its money when it comes to commercial tenants, but some changes have to be made.
“Downtown Brooklyn has it all now because they were pro-active when it came to development,” said Giscombe from his office on East 125th Street. “Harlem has not been pro-active. People in Harlem want to think of Harlem as if it is a small country town, and they want to keep it that way.”
But to walk down 125th Street, it is clear that a small country town Harlem is not.
At around 12 minutes from Midtown via one of 10 subway lines, bridges from Queens, The Bronx and New Jersey and a major stop on the Metro-North railroad leading to all points in Westchester, Dutchess as well as Connecticut, Harlem, you could argue, is more centrally located than Downtown Brooklyn.
Yet Harlem’s commercial growth has been slow. Giscombe, who grew up in the area at the same time Willie Mays was patroling center field at the Polo Grounds and has worked in the neighborhood his entire life, offers an insightful theory.
“If they could shake loose some of these old feelings that they have in Harlem and we get more pro-active as far as commercial development is concerned, then Harlem would probably be good competition for Downtown Brooklyn,” he said.
For his part, Giscombe said that he has been dedicated in facilitating change to move Harlem beyond its stigma as a center of poverty.
“With the exception of the brand new buildings that have come up in the last couple of years, we have managed or sold most of the major commercial buildings that are on 125th street,” Giscombe said of his firm. “From to 261, 271, 215 West 125th to the old Women’s Y, to The Lowes Theater, which we sold to the state of New York. We represented Manufacturers Hanover Trust and the New York Bank of Savings, taking the buildings from the owners of 55 West and 132 West 125th which is where the Studio Museum is housed today.
“We did a lot to help the survival of the Teresa Hotel by putting in Malcolm King College at 30,000 s/f. We managed 215 West 125th street, where OTB was. We subsequently sold that building and kept the land for the non-profit that owned it and signed a 99-year ground lease,” he said.
Beginning his career in 1972 with local firm Webb and Brooker, developer of the Shomberg Towers and 1199 Plaza, Giscombe was running the commercial brokerage department in 1979 when he, along with two prominent partners, bought the Lee Building, one of Harlem’s only office towers and the only one east of Fifth Avenue.
“We had the opportunity to buy, and I subsequently bought out my two partners, who were my bosses,” said Giscombe. “I moved over here and opened up my own company in 1981. We managed both residential and commercial properties for a number of years. We were the first ones to bring in T1 wiring [cable] into an office building in Harlem. That was one of our efforts to try to make this building attractive.
“This is a building that was 80 percent vacant when we took it over. It was almost ready to be taken by the city for unpaid taxes. This whole area, 125th Street from Fifth Avenue to Second Avenue was vacant stores, drug sales and prostitution,” he said.
Faced with obvious neighborhood challenges, Giscombe had another problem, this one within his own building.
“We had a methadone program in the building [whose] patients entered from the lobby and used the main elevators,” he said. “[This] made it a real challenge to hold on to the few tenants that we had and made it impossible to gain new tenants.”
With the survival of a building he had invested his life savings in at stake, Giscombe came up with a solution that, if it executed correctly, would change the fortune of his property, without him incurring additional costs.
“We spoke with [Beth Israel] hospital and convinced them to redirect the methadone patients to another portion of the building,” he said. “They spent several million dollars putting in brand new automated elevators that just serviced their patients. That freed us up to do several million dollars-worth of renovations.”
Those changes allowed Giscombe to market the former Hamilton Storage & Warehouse Building, now the Lee Building, as a fully-fledged office property with both a Park Avenue and a 125th Street address.
The building is now home to architectural firm Johnson Consulting, the law offices of Murphy & Associates, AARP and a non-profit run by the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Chase has a retail banking location on the first floor while the other space is now leased by a Popeye’s Restaurant.
Beyond Harlem, Giscombe has also turned around 200 West 40th Street, a three-story commercial building just south of Times Square. The space suffered from vacancies and tenants who used the location for the business Times Square was once famous for.
“It was nice to turn the building around, it didn’t make a lot of money,” he said. “The second and third floors were vacant. Some wise guy broker came in and tried to put in a house of ill repute. I had to threaten God knows how many people. We got them out of there and we put Midtown Comics in. [We] consolidated some of those leases and it’s doing alright.”
As for the brokerage business?
Giscombe said that his firm’s position in the game is secure, even as larger brokerages focus on Harlem. The veteran said each member of his small team brings something to the table.
“We’re very vibrant,” he said. “We don’t look for any yes men, we want everybody to question everything that’s done, so we get a full spectrum of answers that are necessary to meet any challenge that comes before us.
“We’ve built a reputation. We know they community, we know who is lending, we know good streets and bad streets. We can show them a whole bunch of different places. We didn’t just get here.”