Case Study

Timbale Terrace Moves into East Harlem

5 min read

NYC Performance Arts/Affordable Housing Development Will Cast a Spell

Belongó. It’s an evocative term, containing not only the English word “belong” but a Cuban one meaning to cast a spell.

Belongó, a new name for New York City’s notable Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, is the cultural partner in a plan to expand the people in its community by developing more than 300 units of affordable housing, and it will certainly cast a spell with its forthcoming performance arts space, the 20,000 square foot Casa Belongó Arts Center.

Partners for the housing side, which will include nearly 100 units for formerly homeless residents, include nonprofit affordable housing developer Lantern Organization and contractor Mega Development.

The project, which has the overall title of Timbale Terrace (timbales are open-bottomed drums extensively used in Latin music), is still in its opening stages (New York City’s housing department has greenlighted construction plans and final approvals are expected to stretch into this year).

Timbale Terrace’s outlines are clear, though, according to Belongó’s Michael León-Rivera, the Alliance’s communications director.

With an anticipated completion date of 2027, the center will be a state-of-the-art facility, not just for performances by the famed Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and others, but also for music education, León-Rivera says. The leader of the orchestra, renowned pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill, created the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance in 2007.

“Our future home will offer a welcoming space to experience artistic expression, promote cultural discourse and strengthen bonds for the East Harlem community, New York City and beyond,” says O’Farrill, a Grammy winner whose orchestra often plays at New York’s famed jazz club Birdland.

“Currently in design by New York City architecture firm Diller, Scoffidio + Renfo, Casa Belongó will offer an everyday destination that will harbor rehearsal and performance spaces, classrooms, meeting spaces, as well as a café, retail and gallery space.”

The site, at Park Avenue between East 118th and East 119th Street in New York’s East Harlem neighborhood, will hold a mixed-use development of the performance center, the second floor will replace a New York Police Department’s parking lot, which is what is at the site now.

“A lot of details are still being approved,” says León-Rivera. “But this year, a transition is underway in anticipation of our new home.” The organization is currently in space on East 99th Street in Manhattan.

The Value of Community
“Belonging and inclusivity are really big parts of what we want, in terms of making this art form of Latin music acceptable to everyone and bringing in that community and making sure that we are making a mark within that Harlem community and making sure that that they know we are there,” says León-Rivera.

As well as targeting the neighborhood and the city (the orchestra recently played in the New York borough of the Bronx), the group is also targeting the world.

“Arturo and the Orchestra are going on worldwide tours, so it’s like bringing it from East Harlem to the world,” says León-Rivera.

Latin influences at the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance (Belongó) include music from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil and South America: “a complete presence of the diaspora,” he says.

León-Rivera says some of the housing would be for individuals that have recently exited drug rehabilitation programs (a factor that produced some Not in My Backyard “NIMBY” objections from neighbors in the summer of 2023, see sidebar).

The total development cost has yet to be determined, but a designer made an initial estimate of $136 million when the project was announced in 2021, which is likely to be higher now.

A Birthplace of Jazz
“The area is known to be the birthplace of Afro-Latin jazz,” says León-Rivera. “I mean, you think of Dizzy Gillespie and Machito and those pioneers of the art form, that was the area where they were,” he says. “Being able to reinvigorate the heritage of the area was an extremely important aspect for us.”

In announcing the project, the city Housing Preservation and Development department notes the residential building “will have ample communal space, including large outdoor areas, terraces, a fitness center, common kitchen area and office space. In addition, Lantern Community Services will provide social services support focused on health and wellness, stable housing, education and employment.”

The department notes the development is a part of the city’s East Harlem Housing Plan, approved in 2017. At the same time that it announced Timbale Terrace, the department also announced another development that, added to Timbale Terrace, would bring the total of affordable housing units to 600.

As for the housing development partners, Lantern Organization is a nonprofit, affordable housing developer that provides permanent and affordable housing options for special needs and low-income populations.

Mega Contracting is a Queens-based development, general contracting and construction management firm. Over their 30 years of experience, Mega has worked on a wide range of projects in New York City. Queens is another of the five boroughs of New York City.

Nixing the NIMBYism
Lantern Organization, one of the partners in Timbale Terrace, advocated strongly last year for the project, in response to local NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard). Language on a petition it circulated gives a clear picture of the scope of the project:

East Harlem urgently needs affordable housing, supportive housing and spaces that celebrate the neighborhood’s culture. 

Timbale Terrace responds to these needs by replacing an NYPD parking lot with art, music and 100 percent affordable housing, while adding job opportunities and workforce training. It includes:

  • 340 units of urgently needed 100 percent affordable housing, with a focus on extremely low-income households and families;
  • 120 units set aside for residents of the East Harlem community;
  • Over 100 family-sized two- and three-bedroom units;
  • 97 units of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals with special needs;
  • A well-funded suite of support services and enrichment programs for building residents; and
  • A permanent home for the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance (Belongó), which celebrates East Harlem’s proud legacy as a birthplace of Afro-Latin Jazz.
Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.