On a recent sunny afternoon, the actress Tatum O’Neal arrived at the doorstep of the Forward Building.
The terra-cotta-and-brick-clad Neoclassical edifice on East Broadway, facing Seward Park, got its name from the newspaper it was built to house, the Jewish Daily Forward. Portraits of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, carved carefully into the yellow-brown façade, stare out from above the large entryway, now strewn lightly with debris from the building’s almost-complete renovation into apartments.
The 10-story building at 175 East Broadway had been more than a newspaper headquarters: It had been the headquarters of Jewish life on the Lower East Side for much of the 20th century, where immigrants came to find assistance, labor activists held their meetings, and fiery political speech emanated from the several podiums in the lower floors. Now, Ms. O’Neal, who sold a loft on Great Jones Street last October, was there to find a luxury condominium.
About an hour before Ms. O’Neal arrived for her tour, developer and architect Ronald Castellano paced around unit 10AB—the roughly 4,000-square-foot penthouse—and gazed out over the city.
“It’s a very interesting view,” said Mr. Castellano. “To the west is the financial district. To the north is the Empire State Building. Here is the Williamsburg Bridge [and] Triborough Bridge.”
At the age of 37, Mr. Castellano already has an impressive résumé, beginning his career as an intern architect under architect Peter Eisenman. Later, he worked for four years at Richard Meier and Partners, and—shortly before breaking out on his own—the Frank Stella Studio.
“Working at Richard [Meier’s firm], everything matters,” said Mr. Castellano, who admits that his former boss’ meticulous nature is something he cannot shake in his own projects, down to the smallest bathroom fixture. Mr. Castellano labored over early models for the Perry Street towers in the West Village, where celebrity buyers arrived in droves with three words in mind: location, location and location. At Perry Street, more than anything else—the building, the finishes—the location was the architect’s creation.
In addition to identifying the iconic New York landmarks visible through the penthouse’s oversized windows, Mr. Castellano also pointed out the Garfield Building at 142 Henry Street, which he developed alongside then-partner Christopher Haynes (who has since gotten married and moved to Boston).
On that residential project, things were a bit trickier. Renters already occupied several floors, so the developers had to keep shuffling the building’s tenants during construction.
Despite the obvious headaches, the conversion eventually paid off. After a four-year renovation of the former manufacturing building—which the partners bought for a paltry $2.45 million in 2001—they began selling units to very notable buyers, including the German-born model (and onetime girlfriend of magician David Blaine) Manon Von Gerkan and the actor Josh Lucas (who is best known for wooing Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama).
Although Mr. Castellano briefly joined the beautiful people living on Henry Street, he now plans to move to the Forward Building himself after it is completed this summer. But Mr. Castellano still has one more project in the neighborhood: In September, he plans to open a 4,000-square-foot vegetarian restaurant at 171 East Broadway, just one door down from the Forward. (Everything old is new again: The location was also the site of a vegetarian eatery in the 1920’s.)
Mr. Castellano wasn’t the first to think of turning the Forward into apartments. He was just the first, after decades of efforts, to get it done.
The Lau family purchased the building for $316,000 decades earlier, and had planned to convert it in the late 1990’s. When it was landmarked in 1986, the owners realized that they needed to complete an exhaustive renovation of the exterior as well as the interior. After pouring $10 million into a gut renovation, 39 high-end units were carved out of the former newspaper offices.
Then came Sept. 11 and the downturn in the housing market; the owners eventually decided against marketing the apartments. So, in the summer of 2004, the entire building landed on the market for $22 million. And in April 2005, Mr. Castellano purchased it for $23.5 million, just as the Henry Street conversion was being completed.
“I worked on the Garfield Building for four years,” said Mr. Castellano. “It was a real slow process. This one, we bought it pretty much renovated [and] sort of ripped it all out.”
For the condo’s new configuration, Mr. Castellano did a lot of “shifting around and redoing,” eventually settling on an assortment of 29 residential units and two commercial units.
There were other changes from the previous renovation. For one thing, there was no air conditioning in the building when Mr. Castellano purchased it, meaning that air conditioners would have to protrude from the ornate façade—something that would never fly in a high-end building these days.
Amenities were another obvious concern, and Mr. Castellano is designing the units individually and allowing buyers to select tiles, appliances and fixtures from high-end brands like Dornbracht, Kohler and Miele. “The guy on the fifth floor won’t have the same faucet as the guy on the third floor,” he said. Also, the building features a 24-hour doorman, a refrigerator in the lobby (ideal for Fresh Direct–obsessed buyers) and a bike storage area—a major concern for the developer who prefers riding a bike to driving.
Prices range from $575,000 (for a 625-square-foot studio) to $4.5 million (for the penthouse). Although the sales office officially opened on March 15, several prospective buyers have already signed contracts.
“We started about two weeks ago, and we are about 50 percent sold,” said luxury broker Michael Bolla, who is the building’s director of marketing. “There are people coming from the West Village and Tribeca, but even people coming from Connecticut.”
Apparently, one buyer is also fleeing the Upper East Side: A doctor—and regular patron of French restaurant Les Enfants Terribles on nearby Canal Street—is trading life in the East 70’s for a sleek apartment on the building’s sixth floor.
And at least one celebrity buyer is already moving in too.
Photographer Brigitte Lacombe—who purchased a condo at nearby 7 Essex Street in 2004—has selected a sunlight-filled apartment facing the park.
Celebrity cachet notwithstanding, Mr. Bolla estimates that “about a third of the sales” at the Forward occurred because buyers “came specifically for the history of the building.”
The building hasn’t housed a newspaper for a long time. Founded in 1897, the Forward’s circulation grew rapidly to 120,000 in a few short years. So the Forward Association purchased two buildings, located at 173 and 175 East Broadway, to serve as the site of its new and larger headquarters.
Construction on the George Bohm–designed building was completed in 1912, and it quickly became the signature building of the neighborhood, easily standing out amid the comparatively low-lying structures. In 1974, the socialist Forward was smaller again—it has since morphed into the weekly Forward—so it sold the building and moved up to East 33rd Street.
That was 32 years ago. But it is really only now that the building’s past is catching up with it—or rather, that Manhattan’s overheated real-estate speculators are catching up with the building’s past, and the history of the Lower East Side. That Marx and Engels should overlook the façade of the next great luxury development of the Lower East Side seems less an anomaly than an apt metaphor for the peculiar and sought-after brand of luxury the neighborhood now represents.
Promotional materials—which are typically more likely to dwell on ultramodern amenities—actually mention how “the building’s cultural significance parallels the important revolutionary, socialist-democratic values its Yiddish-language newspaper espoused.”
To others, the building’s cultural significance now parallels something else entirely: the move to turn the Lower East Side into a combination tourist trap and playground for the ultra-rich.
Last week, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum announced plans to push for a historic district in the neighborhood, which could comprise 22 square blocks. It seemed community-minded enough. But the Tenement Museum has been having trouble with the neighbors lately.
The main building of the museum, at 97 Orchard Street, features guided tours of re-created tenement-living spaces, as well as a visitors’ center with information about neighborhood events and history.
On March 16, in a first-floor meeting room at a senior-citizen center on East Eighth Street, representatives from the Tenement Museum (along with a few supporters from other organizations) planned to speak at the Community Board 3 committee meeting.
For at least an hour, the first 20 items on the committee’s agenda—mostly regarding summer block-party permits—proceeded without much uproar. But then came Item No. 21, and things became heated.
Several angry attendees called the museum’s proposal for a historic district “disingenuous,” fearing that walking down their streets would make them unwitting participants in some kind of Epcot Center display.
Especially objectionable was the prospect of building a 19th-century-style “saloon.”
“We are in fact doing a historical re-creation of a saloon,” said Alexandra Mann, director of public relations and marketing for the Tenement Museum. Although Ms. Mann couldn’t say at this time whether the saloon would serve alcohol, she insists that “it will not be open in the evening” and would be located in the lower level, in the museum’s theater space.
The museum’s representatives also had a PowerPoint presentation to show: “Existing Historic Buildings in the Proposed Landmark District.” They weren’t allowed to show it, and instead handed out a one-page synopsis and map of the proposed landmark district.
“We went to the community board as a pre-step to let them know this is something we are doing,” said Margaret Hughes, a director of the Tenement Museum, who has two meetings scheduled in the next few weeks with both property owners and advocates of affordable housing.
“The physical Lower East Side will be gone in three years,” said Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, who also attended the committee meeting at the museum’s request. “I think that the current zoning encourages the decimation of the area, [and] a historic district would help preserve its architectural character.”
If high-end apartment buyers are buying at the Forward because of the building’s cultural significance, at other buildings a sleek design and new construction are significance enough—to say nothing of the neighborhood’s endlessly proliferating nightlife options.
Just last month, Vanity Fair featured “The Swingin’ Lower East Side,” including an easy-to-use map of galleries, bars and shops. But it was mostly devoted to restaurants.
“The Lower East Side restaurant scene has totally exploded—not just in terms of the number of places, but in the ambition of the restaurants,” said Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic for The New York Times. He mentioned a few notable additions in the past year and a half, including Thor and Falai—which “lifts the Lower East Side up a notch or two.”
Mr. Bruni awarded two stars (a “very good” rating) to three of the last four Lower East Side restaurants he reviewed.
But he sees trouble on the horizon.
“On the restaurant front, there is a real question now about whether the old-time residents of the community are going to be successful in daunting some restaurateurs from expanding down there,” Mr. Bruni said. “They’ve stalled, if not prevented, the Orchard from getting a liquor license.”
Indeed, the Orchard—which remains B.Y.O.B.—has met resistance from Board 3, which has been trying to block liquor licenses on certain streets it feels have already become too congested.
“There are so many already that, regardless of who is coming in, we can’t accommodate one more person, one more taxi,” said Susan Stetzer, district manager of Board 3. “From 12 o’clock on, there are people screaming in the streets.”
And within mere footsteps of Blue! For those of you who haven’t been following the condo-ization of the Lower East Side, Blue is the name for a large, ultrachic tower now going up just off Delancey Street, down the block from the old Ratner’s.
The Bernard Tschumi–designed residential tower will be striking, to say the least, with five different shades of blue glass and two shades of clear glass for its cladding. Nothing like the Forward Building.
“None of us know exactly how it will look, because it will depend on how the sun hits it,” said Barrie Mandel of the Corcoran Group, who is the exclusive sales and marketing agent. “Once this structure gets up there, [because of] the play of the light and sun and shadows, it will look different throughout the day.”
Marketing for Blue began at the end of 2005, and Ms. Mandel believes that at least half the 32 units are under contract. The prices range from $775,000 (for a 759-square-foot apartment) to approximately $3.5 million to $4 million (for the 2,494-square-foot penthouse). Other features include floor-to-ceiling windows, a concierge and an 8,000-square-foot common terrace.
If the insides of Blue looked anything like the insides of the Tenement Museum, you can be sure these buyers wouldn’t be coming. But the streets are another matter. Why not have the best of both worlds—and live in an ultramodern glass tower perched above a burlesque show of fancy restaurants and cute historical artifacts? Where have we seen this appetite before?
“There is something about the attitude of the Lower East Side, and the attitude of this building, which is compelling people to buy here,” said Ms. Mandel of Blue’s buyers so far. “They’re not Sutton Place; they are Greenwich Village, Tribeca [and] Noho buyers.”
“I’m scared of what’s going on in the city,” said Mr. Bankoff. “Everything is going high-end residential. Where the heck do the rest of us live?”