Community Boards

Lower East Siders Object To New Housing Plan

On July 30, a group of two dozen self-avowed Black Panthers pumped their leather-clad fists in unison to the tune of Panther chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz chanting “Gentrification!” (not to mention “Bill Clinton, slave master!” and “Take Hillary with you!”) at a Harlem rally to welcome Bill Clinton. It was the one dissonant note on a day that otherwise celebrated Harlem’s renewal and popularity.

The next day, some 100 blocks away on the Lower East Side, a similar objection was sounded at the executive meeting of Board 3. And again, while many neighborhood residents were celebrating renewal and, to some, progress, others were voicing fears about gentrification and rising rents.

Though not as glamorous as the Panthers, in their black army fatigues and dark Blues Brothers shades, the residents of Cooper Square and the surrounding area turned out to oppose the development of four buildings with 695 new apartments, 150,000 square feet of retail space and a community center of 30,000 square feet at the intersections of Bowery and Second Avenue, Stanton and East Second streets. The parcels, to be sold by the city to a coalition of developers, are a major step towards the realization of an urban-renewal effort that began nearly 40 years ago.

One 2.85-acre parcel borders the Liz Christy Garden, the city’s oldest community garden, which will be preserved (a proposal to put a walking path through the garden was nixed after the community objected). The Church of All Nations, at Houston and Second Avenue, will be demolished to make way for the new community center, which will house some of the displaced cultural groups and will include both an Olympic-size swimming pool and a gymnasium.

The project will cost an estimated $200 million and will go forward without any city funds. Though David Dinkins had supported the construction of new housing on the under-used and run-down blocks around Bowery and Houston, Mayor Rudy Giuliani withdrew all city funding in 1996 and instead sold the buildings for private development for nearly $3 million; the funds went into city coffers.

Finally, in a deal put together by the Cooper Square Committee, a community group active since 1959, a coalition of developers was assembled to rehab the area. The developers-AvalonBay Communities, based in Virginia; Williams Jackson Ewing, a national realty developer; and Blackacre Capital, a private investment firm in New York-operate under the name Chrystie Venture Partners. The Cooper Square Development Plan was before Board 3 under the Uniform Land Use Review Process.

On Aug. 1, representatives from the Cooper Square Committee and Chrystie Venture Partners appeared at Board 3′s executive-committee meeting-held in lieu of a full board meeting this month-to present the proposal. And that’s where the cries of “gentrification” were sounded.

The opponents’ primary objections are that the plan does not provide for enough affordable housing; that it will drive up neighboring rents; that it will displace a handful of artists; that it includes too much commercial space, which will threaten other businesses and drive up retail rents; that notification about the meeting was insufficient; and that the executive board’s plan to vote on the proposal rather than wait for a vote by the full board was “illegal.”

Confronting as many as 100 residents who turned out for the meeting, City Council member Kathryn Freed and board members said there have been numerous public hearings and meetings to allow everyone in the community to voice their concerns about the project. Board members also said they faced a technical deadline in the process-and that they want to see the new housing and cultural space rise on the long-neglected blocks as soon as possible.

As for concerns about affordability: According to the developer, 229 apartments out of the 695 housing units will be low-income. (Altogether, of 1,355 new and renovated apartments to be created in the full urban-renewal area, 835, or 62 percent, will be low-income, the Cooper Square Committee said.)

But residents closely questioned James Lima, assistant commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, about rents and definitions of affordability. And many rallied to the defense of “displaced” tenants.

Mr. Lima said that only three families and another woman will be affected, and that all have been offered relocation in lofts within three blocks of where they now live. But the crowd, unhappy with Mr. Lima’s answers, grew increasingly agitated, shouting and cursing at the board while its members rapped for quiet. The discussion went on for two hours, with opponents finally leaving still unsatisfied and questioning the objectivity of the board. (One opponent said he would file suit to block the plan.)

“Frankly, I find this plan shocking. It’s unfair, unjust and possibly illegal,” James Allen, who said he has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, told The Observer.

But Bond Street resident Keith Crandell stayed inside, waiting to be heard. Using carefully weighed words in a tired voice, he raised concerns about the proposed community center. “I am just worried what impact the building will have on a fragile cultural institution,” he said.

Later, he told The Observer that he recognized the concerns of the opponents, although the addition of any low-income units is an improvement over what’s there now.

“It’s always difficult,” he said. “But this land is just sitting there, and it will be good for the neighborhood.”

The executive committee voted 13 to 1 to support the plan, which now goes to the borough president’s office, city planning and then the City Council.

-Joey Cohen

Monthly meetings of Manhattan’s community boards will resume in September.