Bounty on the Bowery

Big Developers, Big Plans for Downtown Lots

Since it was established 41 years ago, the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area on the Lower East Side has spawned bitter battles, sweet deals, political wrangling, and endless task forces. But mostly it has produced years of inaction. Now a development plan appears near fruition, and the once downtrodden blocks along the Bowery near Houston Street have become a prize for which no fewer than eight developers are vying, including at least four of the city's biggest and one of the neighborhood's most controversial.

The bids come in response to a request for proposals from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which plans to select a developer by late summer. Sources say the bidders for the 2.85-acre patch include real estate heavies such as the Gotham Organization, the Related Companies, a partnership involving developer Donald Zucker, and a joint venture that combines Jack Resnick with Donald Capoccia, a builder who became the target of protests because of his city-backed bulldozing of community gardens to make way for town houses. Spokesmen for each developer confirmed that they are submitting plans, but would not give details.

The winner will build about 625 units of housing, 50 units of supportive housing, and a 30,000-square-foot recreational and community facility on four parcels bounded by the Bowery and Second Avenue, East Second and Stanton Streets. Of the 625 units, 75 percent will be market rate. The rest are available only to those whose income does not exceed 60 percent of the area median, or $32,040 for a family of four.

The plan was devised over more than four decades that spanned six mayors and many more economic turns. Schemes have ranged from bulldozing the neighborhood to using public money to build low- and moderate-income housing to the current version, under which the Giuliani administration refuses to spend any funds for the project.

Even without public subsidies, developers obviously find the investment attractive, since market-rate apartments in the neighborhood will easily fetch skyward rents. "This is a market-driven plan, and assuming the economy holds, I think it's finally going to happen," says Steve Herrick, executive director of the Cooper Square Committee. "I don't see a lot of signs of the market here slowing down, and even it if does, there are a lot of people who want to live here and pay $3000 for two bedrooms. That would probably be the low end."

Among the most dissatisfied neighbors are the only residential tenants to be moved under the plan, three families who live in a five-story loft building at 295 Bowery. Tenants in the city-owned building, including author and artist Kate Millett, have paid shockingly low rents for huge spaces; Millett, for example, has two 2000-square-foot lofts for $300 each. HPD wants the tenants to move to smaller nearby lofts.

"They're murdering us," Millett says of HPD. "They are so powerful, and we go to meetings and there's 12 guys and us, and they just talk right through you."

Millett and her neighbors had hoped to save their building by installing a museum to commemorate the prostitutes who died at McGurk's so-called suicide hall, the pub that operated in the first floor of 295 Bowery until the turn of the 20th century. At least 10 women reportedly killed themselves there with carbolic acid. But even pleas from Gloria Steinem could not persuade HPD commissioner Richard Roberts to keep the building.

"Gloria begged him about keeping us there," said Millett. "They talked on the phone for a long time, but Roberts kept saying this would be treating me like some kind of a big shot." HPD spokeswoman Kim Brown said tenants have conditionally accepted the agency's final relocation offer.

Other artists caught up in the urban renewal area have seen a much happier ending. Hans Haacke, a conceptual artist who made headlines this past winter with his work that linked Rudy Giuliani with fascism, was able to join his neighbors in buying their city-owned loft building on the Bowery for a mere $460,000. Down the block, sculptor Charles Saulson paid $340,000 for his building. He then added three stories: two condos that were marketed for nearly $1 million each and a penthouse that Saulson said would probably rent for $7000.

Millett laments the changes along the Bowery, which she calls "one of the longest and best real streets in New York; it's older than even Broadway. All this is just going to make housing for yuppies, who can make a straight shot down to Wall Street. It's going from being the Bowery to la-la land."

 
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