NEW YORK -- One day next spring, groundbreaking should begin on an effort to restore boarded-up buildings and bottomed-out lives in one of the most devastated areas of New York City: an urban wasteland that spans nearly 40 blocks in Harlem.
But as that day approaches -- a day that many have worked toward since the mid-1970s -- a consortium of Harlem's religious, civic and business leaders is locked in a fierce battle over who will control the project, known as Bradhurst.
Already, the administration of Mayor David N. Dinkins has set aside $18.4 million in its capital budget to start the first phase of the program, renovating 18 buildings to provide 320 apartments for homeless low- and moderate-income families.
That amount, if far short of the hundreds of millions that supporters would like, represents funds that could be difficult to come by in a time of growing fiscal uncertainties.
Yet such a start, and the strong support of the mayor, have created hope and the impression that something finally will happen.
All this has intensified competition on several fronts: from sizable fees for providing technical assistance for the project to the right to brag about playing a major role in redeveloping a part of Harlem.
"Because Harlem has been so left out of economic development in the city, everyone is looking to Bradhurst as the be-all and end-all," said the Rev. Preston R. Washington Sr., who is chairman of the Consortium for Central Harlem Development, the local organization designated by the city to help design and initiate the project. "But every minority contractor is not going to get a piece of Bradhurst. Every vendor is not going to be involved in Phase 1."
Everyone connected with the project recognizes that raising the money for the entire development will be difficult. Even so, they continue to dream big.
As envisioned, Bradhurst would represent social engineering on a scale never before tried by a municipal government. In fact, the mayor, who has made it a keystone of his administration, touts it as a beacon to other cities struggling to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.
The project would create 2,200 new apartments and single-family homes and 300,000 square feet of commercial space over a decade.
It would also provide social services, job-training programs and recreational and cultural activities. And because one of its goals is community empowerment, officials hope it can be a strating point for a new generation of political and business leaders.
The cost, which is to be paid by the city and private sources, is expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, with the price tag for the housing alone estimated at about $160 million.
"This has to be a cohesive and holistic plan with the people's development and strengthening in mind," Dr. Washington said. "That is why the churches are involved. For us this is not an economic development plan. For us it's a spiritual mandate."
The area of the project, stretching from 139th Street to 155th Street and from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to Bradhurst, Edgecombe and St. Nicholas avenues, has been neglected for more than two decades.
Since 1970, an exodus has left behind the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed. Nearly two-thirds of the households have incomes below $10,000 a year.
In a community with one of the highest crime rates in the city, garbage-strewn vacant lots and tumbledown tenements, many of them abandoned and sealed, contribute to the sense of danger and desolation that pervades much of the area.
But there are pockets of middle-class stability, where questions are being raised by residents who wonder if their neighborhoods will be inundated with low-income families.
Councilwoman C. Virginia Fields, whose district includes the project area, said that she worried that the city could be creating a "ghetto within a ghetto."
City officials and consortium members are now trying to persuade foundations and corporations to help finance the economic development, educational and cultural aspects of the Bradhurst project.