News | West Harlem

Property trials: A Citarella story

Though Citarella was evicted in June, managers say the store isn’t leaving anytime soon.

And one block away from the upscale supermarket’s Harlem location, the stench of live chickens and cracked eggs continues to create a fitting background for its fenced-in lot at 126th Street and Amsterdam, which was left to rot.

Though this lot has been abandoned for decades now, it has been a major topic of discussion in court recently. In June, the New York State Supreme Court ruled to evict the Harlem location of the gourmet supermarket chain Citarella. The supermarket has owned the 126th Street lot for almost a decade now.

The June 5, 2009 ruling supported the city’s efforts to evict Citarella on the grounds of failure to comply with the original terms of a lease. The lease outlined strict specifications for Citarella’s development of the 126th Street vacant lot, purchased in 2001 after the 1999 opening of Citarella’s Harlem location.

Five months later, community groups and city officials have confirmed that Citarella has taken the case to the Court of Appeals, and that no further decision has been made.
With the original purchase, Citarella had agreed to create some sort of fish-processing center on site, which many local groups supported because it would bring more jobs into the community.

They instead opened such a center in the Bronx’s Hunts Point, leaving the warehouse on 126th street empty and leading the New York City Economic Development Corporation to bring the original lawsuit against Citarella in 2006.

According to a statement from Janel Patterson, an NYCEDC spokesperson, “Citarella’s owners are appealing a June 5, 2009 decision awarding title to the property to New York City Economic Development Corporation.” Patterson declined to comment further on the ongoing litigation.

Citarella’s corporate office did not return multiple calls for comment, but according to Manny Tores, manager of the Citarella store on 125th Street, he has received “no emails, no nothing” regarding the possibility of the store’s eviction. He added that he felt confident of the store’s staying power, saying, “It’s going to be here for a long, long time.”
But the situation is not so simple, according to community groups.

“They tried to change the use of the building to get it for some kind of housing,” said Jane Arrendell, the co-chair of Community Board 9’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee, on Citarella’s plans for the warehouse.

“That didn’t fly because it wasn’t the original plan of usage of the space,” she added. “The argument of the court is about the usage of the building, how they acquired the building, and what the original plans were.”

People in the community expressed a range of concerns over the potential loss of Citarella, and the persisting eyesore of the vacancy on 126th Street.

“I think there’s a million different things that could be put in the space,” Maritta Dunn, a former chair of CB9, said. “They could put a high school there. They could put a mixed-use vehicle where you have housing above a dance studio or a gym. There are several multiuse projects that are possible that the community could benefit from,” she added.

But Arrendell expressed a general frustration with the 126th Street decay. “Citarella doesn’t have a need for the site. People want more foot traffic down on that area because there are a lot of factories and buildings. They want to see more economic development and want to build up that area,” she said, adding that a mixture would be beneficial.

City Council member Robert Jackson, who represents parts of West Harlem, said that he too was frustrated with the broken promise, but added that, “One of the most important issues is affordable housing.”

He said he would be interested in exploring mixed-use plans, but has his eyes on affordable housing.

In terms of eviction, nearby vendors said the loss of Citarella could be positive. Alex Suarez, assistant manager of the nearby C-Town grocery store, said, “Maybe it will force people to come here. As a business, it will probably work out well for us,” he said.

But he said, adding his concerns, “Supposedly they sell fresher vegetables than the produce section of other supermarkets. They sell things like fresh yogurt and organic vegetables, so the community will miss things like that.”

For Tony Roccia, manager of the Appletree Market on 120th Street and Amsterdam, even though Citarella serves a different market from his store, on a personal level, he thought eviction would be disappointing.

“I feel bad for them, though. Even for myself I go down there to pick up some cakes. It’s convenient on the way home,” he added. “There are a lot of people that will miss them.”

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