Washington Heights is an immigrant-dominated neighborhood with a deep-seated suspicion for government agencies, and convincing locals to file tax returns would be hard. Bodner faced a language barrier—she didn't know much Spanish, the most widely spoken language in the neighborhood. And she was annoyed with tickets she received for trash trapped under her car, and a signage she left outside.
But Bodner decided to hold out a little longer. She didn't have to wait long. Bodner's franchise—the first for Liberty Tax Service franchise in Washington Heights and Inwood—ended up recording among the highest tax returns of the 16 Liberty Tax Service franchises in New York City in 2011. Bodner now plans to open five more franchises in Washington Heights and Inwood by 2013.
"It was a challenge, but I eventually realized that some communities have a pulse, others don't," Bodner said. "And Washington Heights and Inwood definitely have a pulse."
At a time when reports on the economy rarely bring good news, Washington Heights and Inwood are emerging hubs of economic opportunities and growth. Big companies that ignored the neighborhoods as potential markets in the past are now targeting them for development. Corporate offices are jostling for real estate office footholds with entrepreneurs and professionals from across the city. And the local population is slowly moving from bodegas and mom-and-pop shops to managerial and business jobs that were rare here but are now increasing in the neighborhoods.
The combination of lower rents, an aspiring labor force and a relatively untapped market—at a time companies and individual professions are looking for any economic advantage available—is acting as a catalyst for the change.
But a crunch for office space and repeated "why Washington Heights" questions are also a part of the bargain. And despite the changes, the unemployment rate remains high.
White-collar in Washington Heights
At the nine-storey Inwood Center that occupies an entire block between 213th and 214th streets, and Broadway and 10th Avenue, Jason Miller is witnessing a piece of this transformation every day. On a Friday afternoon, Miller's Blackberry beeped every few seconds, as mid-size firms, entrepreneurs and professionals asked him about office space in the commercial plaza, owned by Edison Properties. Outside his glass-paneled office on the sixth floor, two clients who came late for a meeting waited as he answered calls.
Faced with a massive unmet demand for space, Edison Properties opened up 42 new office space slots at the center early November to add to 91 that are already occupied. But even with the new space, Miller has more clients than he needs.
"We saw a need to build a space for bright, strategic entrepreneurs and here we are, doing great," said Lenny Lazarino, vice president of Edison Properties. The company, Lazarino said, researched the neighborhood, interviewed dozens of residents, business owners and entrepreneurs and even looked for potential competitors. "We did not find anything similar in nature to what we planned for the Inwood Center, which was to be a multi-faceted facility offering a place to store, park, work or operate a retail store under one roof."
Many of their clients were initially from the neighborhood, Lazarino said. But as the center's tenants started talking about the plaza to their friends elsewhere in the city, the prospect of state-of-the-art office facilities at lower rents started drawing clients from other parts of New York City, he said.
"You can feel the change in the business environment in Washington Heights and Inwood," said Barbara Martinez, manager of the neighborhood chapter of the NYC Business Solutions, a city agency under the Mayor which helps new businesses get started.
According to the latest census data, the number of white-collar jobs in sectors likes information technology, finance, management, and other professional and scientific areas in Washington Heights and Inwood has doubled from 10,173 in 2000 to 20,038 in 2010.
The total number of jobs in the neighborhoods has also risen 31 percent since 2000, though the population has remained almost constant, registering a tiny dip from 208,414 to 208, 215. The unemployment rate for the neighborhoods is still significantly more than the city average of 9 percent, but has declined from 14.3 percent to 13.5 percent since 2000, at a time when it is increasing elsewhere.
Rent a double-edged sword
One of the most visible signs of change for the community came in August when AT&T opened its first showroom in Washington Heights. The telecom giant, like Bodner at the Liberty Tax Service franchise, turned to NYC Business Solutions for help in hiring locals.
"These companies have proven track records, strong, national brands and the funding necessary to be successful within Washington Heights," said Angelina Ramirez, executive director of the Washington Heights Business Improvement District. "They also provide the services the community wants and needs."
The influx of national and mid-size companies, professionals and entrepreneurs into Washington Heights and Inwood means that the struggle between a growing demand and availability of commercial space that Miller faces plays itself out across the neighborhoods.
The Washington Heights and Inwood Business Improvement District and NYC Business Solutions are counting on a $180 million dollar renovation of the George Washington Bridge Bus Station, which the Port Authority has started work on, to add commercial space. According to the Port Authority, the renovated bus station will offer 120,000 square feet of commercial space as opposed to just 30,000 square feet at present.
SJM Partners, the Florida-based real estate development firm that is working with the Port Authority in a public private partnership on the renovation, announced end-October that it had signed leases with discount apparel retailer chain Marshalls, supermarket chain Fine Fare and the no-frills gym chain Blink Fitness. The neighborhood has no major discount apparel chain, and only one national supermarket chain—a Pathmark—for more than 208,000 residents.
In October, the Washington Heights Business Improvement District started an elaborate new initiative to minimize the time businesses interested in coming to the neighborhood spend in searching for commercial space.