The New York Times
AS the spirit of the East Village creeps eastward into the region that runs from Avenues A to D, between Houston and 14th Streets, two distinct yet overlapping identities are emerging. One is Loisaida, indigenous and struggling; the other is Alphabet City, arty and affluent.
For all their differences, the two Manhattan communities have a common fixation: the area’s vast stock of city-owned properties. After years of disputes and breakdowns in negotiations, housing activists, developers and city officials appear ready to overcome the problems that have blocked development efforts in the past.
Both sides are keenly interested in just how and when development will proceed on the scores of rubble-strewn lots and burned-out buildings that have been owned by New York City since the widespread disinvestment of the mid-1970’s, when landlords literally walked away from their buildings. The abandoned properties blight an otherwise vibrant area and provide a haven for drug dealers.
Loisaida (pronounced low-ee-SIDE-uh) – Spanglish for Lower East Side -has for years been home to many Hispanic New Yorkers, as well as to blacks, Polish-Americans, Jews and Italian-Americans, generally with low to moderate incomes. Since 1982, when the first signs of gentrification appeared, the old-timers have watched art galleries replace shooting galleries, and gourmet delis take over bodegas, the neighborhood groceries.
As expensive housing is fashioned out of privately owned tenements and moribund commercial buildings, the longtime residents of Loisaida have organized to fight displacement, landlord harassment, illusory buyout offers and illegal rent increases. Some 30 housing groups, which make up the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, would like to see as many low-income housing units as possible emerge from the land and structures now under the city’s control.
Alphabet City – a name that refers to the lettered avenues – is a continuation of the East Village – a playful, anarchic place filled with artists’ studios, eccentric cafes and experimental theaters.
It is also a scene of intense real-estate activity, from speculative flipping to a flurry of recent rehabilitations. Hundreds of elegant, loft-style co-ops and condominiums have come on the market selling for $200 to $300 a square foot.
For the designers, models, photographers, advertisers and bankers attracted to the area, housing in Alphabet City is a good buy compared to new units on the Upper East Side, which average $350 a square foot. To developers, the city-owned property is a vast, untapped resource for future construction.
Now, after several years of fruitless discussions between the city and the community’s residents, and the failure of previous plans for the development of the city’s 100 lots and 150 vacant buildings, a settlement may be near.
Paul A. Crotty, the Commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which has been in intense negotiations since January with Community Board 3, has set the end of next month as the deadline for an agreement, at least in principle, on the disposition of the city property and the ratio of low-income to market-rate units.
IN July 1984 Mayor Koch made public a plan to create one low-income unit for every four market-rate apartments created in a cross-subsidy arrangement involving the city-owned property in the area. In addition, proceeds from property sales were to be used to restore already occupied city-owned housing there. But the proposal was attacked, and effectively halted, by community groups, which considered it too vague and lukewarm in its commitment to low-income housing.
The current negotiations have given new life to the project.
‘We’re making progress,” Mr. Crotty said in an interview. ”When I came in, I found there was a great deal of misunderstanding between this agency and the community. We’re now proceeding on the basis that we understand each other.”
”We are closer to an agreement than ever before,” said Luis Nieves, the chairman of Community Board 3 and the executive director of the Lower East Side Coalition Housing Development, a nonprofit organization. ”We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the whole tone of the meetings; there has been a general sense of cooperation on both sides.”
According to Mr. Crotty, under current zoning regulations, there is the potential for the development of about 3,000 units from the land the city owns on the entire Lower East Side, about 80 percent of which falls between Houston and 14th Streets. The market value of that property, most of it east of Avenue B, is estimated to average $27,000 per potential unit, or a total of $81 million.
The community board has called for a one-for-one cross subsidy in which one low-income unit would be created for every market-rate apartment produced. Mr. Nieves said the community also sought to prevent the ”ghettoization” of Loisaida, with all the market-rate units on Avenues A and B, and all of the low- and moderate-income housing on Avenues C and D, where transportation, sanitation and educational services would likely be inferior. Another demand of the board is that the subsidized housing be ready for occupancy at the same time as the more expensive apartments.
Mr. Crotty said the city did not expect to get cash from private developers for the properties. Rather, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development might give one site to a developer, free of charge, for the creation of market-rate housing, but insist that he take another site, renovate it and deliver the property debt-free to the city. That second building would then be turned over to a community-based, nonprofit management group for tenants with low- and moderate-incomes.
One reason the time seems right for the release of city-owned property is that reserves of vacant, privately owned property are dwindling. Developers report that 95 percent of such property is already earmarked for redevelopment into costly housing. Moreover, values have gone up so much in the last few years that the money saved on land could translate into a greater number of renovated, low-income units.
And although the city has not yet discussed the one-for-one proposal with private developers, at least one thinks the plan would work. He is Harry Skydell, who, with Samuel Glasser, rehabilitated Christodora House, a 16-story building on the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue B. ”If you can pick up the land for nothing, you’re saving yourselves, in essence, between $50 and $70 a square foot, which means you can easily renovate 50 percent of the low-income apartments,” Mr. Skydell said. ”The greatest crime is the one being perpetrated by the city. They are allowing vacant buildings to sit barren and abandoned. We have all this housing stock with many developers ready to put in private money, to work out some kind of accommodation to satisfy the low-income needs.”
Meanwhile, the development of what is still available has been swift. Christodora House, which successfully tested the area and then set off a chain reaction of similar developments, has reported selling all but five of its 86 units since going on the market last June. Originally, Mr. Skydell said, prices were projected at $220 a square foot, but they ended up averaging $275 a foot.
One unit – a quadruplex with its own elevator, three terraces and two fireplaces -is still available for $1.2 million. Formerly an immigrant settlement house and now a New York City landmark, Christodora House still has some of its original details, such as molding and recessed arches in the walls.
Mr. Skydell and Mr. Glasser are now developing two residential structures, both to be newly built, on sites on Eighth Street between Avenues B and C, and 11th Street between Avenues A and B. A third site, at the corner of Avenue B and Second Street, will be done by Mr. Skydell in a partnership with Geneva Partners. Construction is to begin on the condominium and rental buildings, with heights ranging from seven to 10 stories, within six months. In all, Mr. Skydell said, there are a total of 25 developments either under way or recently completed in Alphabet City – 90 percent of them co-ops and 10 percent condominiums. FARTHER south, at 175 East Second
Street, between Avenues A and B, Stephen Corelli has renovated a tenement into 21 airy condominiums, measuring 800 square feet and averaging $240 a square foot. Tall ceilings, a full wall of exposed brick and brightly lighted spaces have reportedly helped him sell 25 percent of the building since the condominiums went on sale seven weeks ago. A 29-year-old architect and developer, Mr. Corelli replaced the air shaft that had occupied the center of the former railroad-style structure with an elevator and stairway.
Still other projects are planned for Avenue A, one at the corner of East Houston Street and the other near Fifth Street. John B. Mannix, the chief executive officer of Manhattan Capital Properties, said the two buildings would have a total of 76 co-ops, ranging from $275 to $325 a square foot, and about 25,000 square feet of retail space, leasing for $30 to $40 a square foot.
”Avenue A is the future Columbus Avenue of the Lower East Side,” Mr. Mannix said. Though his assertion may be tinged with hyperbole, most developers agree that the avenue is fast becoming the main retail corridor of the New East Village, with all sorts of boutiques and specialty shops replacing the more modest Mom and Pop shops. East of Avenue B, however, Mr. Mannix accused the city of ”holding up the show.”
”I go by these vacant, boarded-up buildings, and it just kills me,” he said.
Indeed, the farther east one goes, the more impoverished – and dangerous – it becomes. Although a few conversions have taken place between Avenues C and D, for the most part that portion of the Lower East Side is occupied by tenements, crumbling shells of buildings and vacant lots.
One recent afternoon at ”feeding time,” as local residents call it, 25 to 30 people appeared suddenly around drug dealers in empty lots, purchased crack or heroin and disappeared. Marijuana and cocaine are available in storefronts whose locations are commonly known, according to residents. A police officer patrolling nearby, asked about the prevalence of drug dealing on the streets, shrugged her shoulders and said the dealers were back out on the streets a few days after being arrested.
The contrasts and juxtapositions in this outlying region – just west of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and the East River – are startling. In one lot, off Avenue D, roosters, ducks and chickens wander about in front of a tiny wooden house. And nearby, in the middle of a sidewalk, a woman fries fritters and chicken breasts in a large skillet, peddling a modest serving for 50 cents. But only two blocks north, also off Avenue D, is Mokotoff Galleries, a sleek space with abstract paintings, colorful and childlike, that are priced as high as $20,000.
As private developers bring ”luxury,” already present in most of Manhattan below 96th Street, to this corner of the Lower East Side, some members of the community are doing their share to retain affordability. During several demonstrations supporting low-income housing in recent years, groups have posted signs, on city-owned vacant buildings, saying: ”This Land is Our Land. Property of the People of the Lower East Side. Not For Sale.”
But the residents of the community are not just demonstrating. About 20 city-owned structures have been taken over by homesteaders, people, who by virtue of labor and lost leisure time, are allowed to live in the buildings after rehabilitating them under a program run by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development with the help of a local homesteading group called Rehabilitation in Action to Improve Neighborhoods, headed by Angel Rosado. On the exterior of one such building, on Avenue C at the corner of Fifth Street, a painted sign, in both Spanish and English, reads: ”They shall rebuild the ancient ruins. The former wasted, they shall rise up, and restore the ruined cities, desolate now for generations. Isaiah 61:4.”
Whether or not the blocks and blocks of desolate tenements may also be restored in the near future remains uncertain. ”The fact that we’re still meeting is a positive indication that we can pull it off,” said Mr. Nieves, who acknowledges that he is an optimist. ”But it’s not over till it’s over. We’ll know in June.”
Photos of Stephen Corelli in bui9lding he renovated, Luis Nieves, Community Board 3 leader, and Paul A Crotty of Department of Housing Preservation and Development (NYT/Peter Freed); photos of John B. Mannix and building he renovated, Angel Rosaso, head of RAIN homesteaders group, and Harry Skydell and Samuel Glasser, developers (NYT/Peter Freed)