Lee & Associates’ Harlem Shakers
Al Barbarino May 7, 2014, 3 p.m.
A few weeks ago, Stanley Lindenfeld got a call from a woman looking to open a salon in Harlem using the bulk of her life savings.
The story was all too familiar. She was looking for a small space—300 square foot in this case—on a tight budget, with aspirations for a more lucrative future. But she wasn’t fully aware of the bumps along the road that could potentially break her.
“It’s a hand-holding process,” Mr. Lindenfeld said. “This is her first foray into business and over the course of several conversations I’ve explained the process and the pitfalls.”
It’s not the type of deal that’s going to bring Mr. Lindenfeld and fellow Lee & Associates broker Henry Goldfarb big money. But it is the kind of deal that earned the born and bred New Yorkers the trust of a Harlem neighborhood that was initially not so keen on their presence and led to dozens of transactions throughout the neighborhood.
“We’ve made a lot of great friends up there,” Mr. Goldfarb said. “We need every single tenant, whether it’s a $35-a-foot tenant or a $500 tenant.”
The two forged their real estate partnership about 15 years ago when they were brokers at Bernstein Real Estate, later teaming up at Grubb & Ellis before joining Lee & Associates in 2011, where they continue to represent both landlords and tenants.
Their deals range in scope from the mom and pop Harlem deals to prime spaces across Manhattan—including the leasing out and repositioning of 32,000 square feet of retail at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Times Square while still at Grubb & Ellis.
Their entry into the Harlem market began seven years ago as exclusive agents for AIMCO, a real estate investment trust that had begun scooping up properties in that market at the time. Many of AIMCO’s newly acquired buildings were housing “illegal” tenants—meaning that they had taken leases over from friends or relatives—and Messrs. Lindenfeld and Goldfarb were assigned the task of helping the landlord cut new leases with the tenants.
“Can you imagine? Two funky white guys going up to a tough area and going into these stores and introducing ourselves,” Mr. Goldfarb said. “It took a lot of effort, but after about three or four months we started to earn trust.”
Working on the premise that no deal is too big or too small, the brokers said they dedicate the same time and effort to first-time business owners as they would to top-paying clients (even if they are making little to no money on the smaller deals). And they always shoot straight.
“You’ll go out of business and you’re going to lose your security deposit,” Mr. Goldfarb recently told a prospective first-time business owner who simply didn’t have enough money. “This is hard money and savings and you don’t want to take that money away from them.”
It’s easy to relate, they said. Mr. Goldfarb grew up on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side back when people sat on their stoops for entertainment, when you knew everyone in the neighborhood by name, and before the cramped, railroad-style tenements stretching from South to 15th Streets were razed and turned into projects.
“I watched neighborhoods being destroyed and people being displaced so I was simpatico with people in Harlem who felt developers were there to destroy their neighborhood,” he said.
On the other hand, Mr. Lindenfeld is the son of two concentration camp survivors who fled Europe and eventually settled in central Brooklyn and later in Queens, which he said “obviously shaped my thinking about people and life.”
“In many ways we come from similar backgrounds, with no silver spoons in our mouths,” he said, as the brokers began to complete one another’s sentences, as they often seem to do.
“We laugh all the time. We have a very peculiar sense of humor,” Mr. Goldfarb said. “We trust each other implicitly.”
“We’ve never ever had an argument about commission splits,” Mr. Lindenfeld said.
“Not once,” the other chimed in.
Among the brokers’ pinnacle achievements was their work at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Times Square, where they leased and repositioned 32,000 square feet. They first suggested that ownership shorten the Broadway entrance and create a 1,000-square-foot retail space. They leased it out, renegotiated the Hershey’s lease, combined two spaces to create the Phantom of Broadway souvenir shop and also put a New York Sports Club into the building.
Today they exclusively handle AIMCO’s Manhattan properties and the Friedman family’s retail and development portfolio, including 111 Nassau Street, 185 Columbus Avenue, 345 West 42nd Street and 120 West 23rd Street.
They recently represented landlord 52/54 CSQ Realty in Muji’s 8,000-square-foot lease at 52 Cooper Square in the East Village, and they represented landlord Ann/Nassau Realty and tenant Da Claudio Ristorante and Salumeria in a 3,800-square-foot deal at 111 Nassau Street.
In Harlem, the brokers have cut leases for about 30 stores that stretch across 15 buildings, including the mom and pops Keur Sohkna Restaurant, Just Lorraine’s Place and El Caribe.
The 125th Street thoroughfare thrives today thanks in part to the roots the brokers helped plant there years ago. Most recently, they brought baby clothing shop Carter’s to 215 West 125th Street, and they are marketing one remaining space there, another at 55 West 125th Street, and a 4,826-square-foot space at Strivers Gardens at 300 West 125th.
Activity is also moving east along 125th Street as retail tries to keep pace with gentrification and a surge in local residential development, with Waterbridge Capital, Artimus Construction and Archstone among those planning considerable mixed-use developments on the eastern side of the street.
“East 125th Street is the most talked about area in terms of the development that’s coming in,” Mr. Lindenfeld said.
The two brokers are adamant that they will continue to fill existing retail gaps both along 125th Street and throughout Harlem by working with the people who helped pave the way to more lucrative deals while maintaining their honesty and integrity and giving good advice.
Admittedly, in some cases it’s hard say no to a deal. For instance, Mr. Goldfarb predicts the ultimate demise of the retail juice trend. “That’s a trend that’s going to die,” he said. “But I can’t say to someone with three stores and financial backing: ‘I don’t know if this is going to work.’”
He also acknowledged that some business ideas are destined for success, whether or not they might seem just a little bit crazy at first. He recalled a chance encounter with Colonel Sanders (of KFC fame) early on in his career, when the fast food giant first began establishing franchises throughout the city.
“I said, ‘nobody is going to buy fried chicken in New York City!’”