“I am not scum!” exclaims Michael Rosen, a onetime developer and member of the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning task force, who is also the owner of a penthouse at the luxurious Christadora House. It’s a hot July evening, and Rosen is holding a one-man counterprotest outside the home of one of his main detractors, a crusty squatters’-rights activist named Jerry “the Peddler” Wade. “I am not scum, and my children are not scum!” he tells Wade in an outburst provoked by a month of name-calling.
Wade and his fellow neighborhood agitators have been leading boisterous anti-gentrification marches all summer. But no matter what they’re screaming about on any given day—and they do like to scream—all roads eventually lead to Rosen. The marches regularly conclude in front of the Christadora, where they sing their anthem, “Die Yuppie Scum!”, and they’ve taken to calling out Rosen by name, raising questions about his influence in neighborhood politics.
“I really don’t think real estate developers need to be on rezoning plans for communities,” says John Penley, a self-described “slacktivist” who has organized several of the marches. Penley and pals argue that Rosen’s role in creating the rezoning plan—which is meant to protect the neighborhood from aggressive developers—is hypocritical because Rosen lives at the Christadora, one of the first symbols of gentrification here in the late 1980s, and is the developer of Red Square, another luxury-condo building and commercial space built in 1989.
However, Rosen is far from your stereotypical developer. He is a curious study in contradictions that reflect the cliquey politics of the neighborhood. He’s a wealthy man who lives in a luxury building and spent a couple of years buying up East Village properties, but he is also a respected community activist, a former professor of radical sociology, the father of seven adopted children, and a friend to local radicals like Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. Although Rosen has gained supporters through his work to save the old P.S. 64 building from demolition, critics have pointed out that part of his passion stemmed from a desire to protect the view from his penthouse apartment next door. Rosen is known as a big promoter of local business; his four-year-old nonprofit organization, the East Village Community Coalition, recently launched a campaign to discourage national chain stores from moving into the area. But he also profits from Red Square’s chain-store tenants.
Some locals are annoyed by these contradictory messages. “Michael Rosen needs to decide if he is a benevolent community person or a real-estate developer,” says Penley. But they’re most troubled by the role that Rosen and his East Village Community Coalition have played in the rezoning. He started raising eyebrows in 2005, when the EVCC funded an expensive survey of the area that kicked off the rezoning process in earnest after years of failed attempts. Both Rosen and his EVCC partner, Aaron Sosnick—also a Christadora penthouse owner—then became members of the task force that created the current rezoning proposal, which could be approved by the City Council later this year.
The plan, as currently proposed, would cap the height of buildings at eight to 12 stories along most of the side streets. Meanwhile, it would allow developers to erect bigger buildings along some of the larger avenues. The plan has been significantly altered from the EVCC’s more protective 2005 proposal. And though the EVCC has pushed for more protections against developers, neighborhood watchdogs point out that Rosen and his family stand to gain from the current proposal.
“He’s basically creating a situation where he can benefit privately,” says Philip Van- Aver, a longtime housing and preservation activist in the neighborhood. Rosen and his wife, Leslie Gruss, own multiple properties in the area to be rezoned—something that was never disclosed during the rezoning meetings. It seems to be a moot point for most of the properties, which are in the area to be downzoned and therefore gain nothing from the zoning change. But at least one building could potentially be built bigger under the proposed changes—Red Square. “To me, it smells,” VanAver says.
There is also the fact that Red Square’s management company took out a second $25 million mortgage in May. It was all part of a standard refinancing process, according to Rosen, but several locals have speculated that the building’s management is preparing to construct several floors atop Red Square’s commercial space once the new zoning takes effect. Rosen says he knows of no plans to bulk the building up, and he wouldn’t have the power to stop such a plan anyway: He is now a nonvoting shareholder in the building and says he has “no involvement in it on a day-to-day basis.” In fact, Rosen adds, he opposes the upzoning of Houston Street and regrets that he ever built Red Square as a tall tower: “I believe that one learns from one’s experiences—that’s the lovely part of being alive. But you have to take this in a sophisticated, not childish, way. I don’t believe the zoning should have allowed Red Square to be built the way that it is.”
David McWater, the former chair of Community Board 3 and a main architect of the rezoning, says that the persistent suspicions about Rosen’s intentions are simply conspiracy theories.
Rosen insists that he is just a “little fish in the East Village” and has been unfairly targeted. “Life is complex, and, you know, I’m sure Jerry [Wade]’s motives are great. I just think he’s basically having fun in an Abbie Hoffman type of way, but after the protest the next morning, he’s with his friends back at Ninth Street Espresso buying $4 and $5 coffee,” he says. “I don’t see them as much different than me.”
In the meantime, folk singer David Peel, who regularly leads the “Die Yuppie Scum!” sing-alongs, celebrated his birthday August 3 outside the Christadora House with yet another rally.
Duncan Meisel contributed to this story.