The tenements and storefronts tucked along the border between the East Village and the Lower East Side will soon be in the shadows of four mammoth eight- to 14-story buildings. The historical Bowery skid row will get a major face-lift as the development of the long-planned Cooper Square Urban Renewal area finally commences in January. Earth movers are already poised at the first construction site, just below Houston Street, where developers Chrystie Venture Partners will start work after decades of halted planning and deliberation with the Cooper Square Committee.
The $250 million project, which extends from 2nd Street to Stanton Street, and from Second Avenue to the Bowery, is Manhattan’s largest city-owned urban renewal site to date, yet it hardly became common knowledge during the latest review process. Rising in what is still one of Manhattan’s poorest areas will be 525 units of luxury, market-rate studios, one- and two-bedroom apartments, and 175 affordable units for low-income families. A small number of two-bedrooms will go for about $3600. A family of four eligible for the affordable units would have an income capped at $34,000 a year.
“This is the longest, most painful pregnancy I’ve ever seen,” said City Council member Margarita Lopez of District 2, airing doubt that construction will actually start this month. A lot of things were lost in negotiations, she said, including the hope for an all-affordable complex built by the city.
On July 4, 2001, the city’s Housing Preservation and Development department (HPD) sent time-sensitive zoning applications to Community Board 3 for the urban land use review process (ULURP). Conveniently, in July and August the executive board voted in lieu of the full, 50-member board. Hence only 13 people voted in favor of the developer’s applications, four abstained, and one voted no, having only seen the plans once at a public forum held weeks earlier. The forum had revealed little more than sketches and vague assurances of affordable housing and recreational space. Community turnout was sparse, and even so, little time was given for people to raise concerns.
Empty community meetings are a rarity in the East Village, unless nobody is aware of them. HPD only faxed notification to CB3 after office hours, three working days before the July 16, 2001, forum. A spokesperson for HPD claims the agency did notify local papers, and “posted within five blocks,” but would not give specifics. At the next month’s full-board meeting, then chair Lisa Kaplan announced her full support of the plan, saying the executive committee had voted unanimously in favor. Then a slim majority voted in favor of the zoning requests of a housing plan about which hardly anyone knew anything.
Since the project has been over 30 years in the making, most residents have given up trying to keep track of the elements of each incarnation. What they do know about it revolves around enticing catchphrases: “community consensus,” “community recreational facility,” “affordable housing,” and, a favorite among advocates, “indoor swimming pool.”
Most of those phrases come from the mouths of representatives of the Cooper Square Committee (CSC), who are vehemently supporting the plans after decades of acting as a community liaison for the city’s long-held ambition to develop the area. The Cooper Square Committee formed in 1959 as an “anti-displacement and non-profit” group dedicated to preserving affordable housing in Lower Manhattan, and claims to represent the surrounding community. The city certainly regards the group as such, having subsidized the development of its offspring—Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, a for-profit management company. But with 500 members who don’t have to live in the area or attend meetings, and dues of $5-a-year or less, community participation has diluted over time.
“The city saying Cooper Square Committee is representative of the community at large is like me saying that the Hell’s Angels on East 3rd Street are representative of all the Lower East Side,” snorts Lisamarie Dixon, a 30-year on-and-off resident of the East Village. She attended that July public forum, and says she remembers seeing little about the plans. Any discussion of the plans was cut short, she said. “Before people could even really digest the information, [the board] voted on it just like that.”
CB3 chair Harvey Epstein, who was chair of its housing committee in 2001, asserts that the board is supportive, but he still isn’t sure exactly what to expect. “We haven’t seen anything in months,” he said about the plans. “We had some general descriptions by the developers, but I have no memory in specific of what it looks like.”
The many visions and revisions of Cooper Square’s development have, as the late J.A. Lobbia wrote, “spawned bitter battles . . . and endless task forces.” The last such task force, initiated by HPD in 1997, released a March 2000 planning assessment study that managed to absorb all the input it could get, including ideas and design alternatives by would-be displaced tenants, garden advocates, artist collectives, and the Cooper Square Committee. The suggestions included preserving the abandoned Church of All Nations (also known as Cuando), an art and performance space on East 2nd Street; maximizing affordable housing; ensuring integral community space; maintaining the Liz Chrystie Gardens; and making a good-faith effort to attract families, not just singles.
Instead of a complex that optimizes affordability—such as the plan which was toyed with under Dinkins in 1991, with 50 percent of the units for middle- and moderate-income families, and 50 percent for low-income families—this task force (which during the affordable-unfriendly Giuliani years comprised mostly agencies like HPD, the Economic Development Corporation [EDC], and the Department of City Planning) decided an 80-20 split would be sufficient. With such a plan, a developer can get a 421A tax-abatement program and cut costs by making 20 percent of the units time-limited low-income housing. Included in the package is the 42-unit single-resident-occupancy building on 2nd Street and Second Avenue, which will house only the formerly homeless and mentally disabled in studios.
In Chrystie Venture Partners’ proposal, 90 units would have been sold as condos, but this option has since dissolved. Many other things disappeared too, including the preservation and sale of Cuando to a theater group; the preservation of 295 Bowery, which houses four artists’ lofts; and specifications on the promised 38,000 square feet of community recreational space.
The city-hired Leitner Group’s assessment valued the land at $100 per square foot at highest value; $77 million for the prime land. CVP’s bid of $45 million won as the highest bid, yet almost $5 million was later cut. The developers pay $13.5 million down, the rest to be paid two years after completion. Devalued for “mixed use” purposes, the land will have been sold for as low as $40 per square foot, when nearby on Avenue D, a less-prime spot was sold by the city for $80 per square foot to builders of an all-social-service-use educational facility.
Despite what wrangling and criticism there is, some members of the community still believe input is possible. This fall CB3 was promised by HPD that yet another task force would be formed for oversight. After a reporter’s call to HPD revealed that a task force had been named, Epstein made some calls and pulled together a new task force. “Ongoing vigilance is required, and it is tiresome—you’re talking about volunteers here. The city is paying people to do their thing, the developers are paying people to do what they’re supposed to do, but we volunteer all the time we put in,” he said. Though community comments will not be considered in land disposition agreements, the task force will have oversight throughout development. Supposedly.
Lisamarie Dixon received a call from Epstein the morning after the Voice spoke to him, and was appointed a member of the task force. She’s glad to be bringing her perspective to the group for ordinary people in her neighborhood.