One Man’s Battle to Stay on SPURA

400 Grand Street.

400 Grand Street.

Barry Chusid is fighting to stay in his home, a 100-year-old, city-owned tenement  located at 400 Grand Street.  But this is not your average story of a guy at war with City Hall.  That’s  because Chusid (and the residents of 12 other apartments) happen to be sitting on some prime real estate — a little corner of the infamous Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA).

43 years after 2-thousand homes and many businesses adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge were bulldozed, former site tenants are still battling for the right to return. They’re actively involved in Community Board 3’s drawn out quest for a consensus plan. Meanwhile, Chusid  is  on a quest of his own. At a recent meeting of CB3’s SPURA task force, he vowed to “pitch a tent,” if necessary, rather than be displaced.

Given the fact that nothing has happened on the SPURA site for four decades, these concerns may seem premature. But Chusid — who’s a suspicious sort — is not taking any chances.  For him, this is not a new fight, but the continuation of a decade-long ordeal with his landlord, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.  His lonely crusade could be one of the more interesting mini-dramas playing alongside the larger SPURA debate in months to come.

The property in question is actually known as 400-402 Grand.  Located just to the west of Clinton Street, it consists of a 5-story residential building and a three story structure that’s boarded up and vacant, except for a shoe repair store on the ground floor.  A second storefront was the home of Ruby’s fruits and vegetables for 60 years before Ruby Baumgarten abruptly closed last year. In June, we reported that the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy had leased the space, and would open a Visitor Center there as soon as renovations could be completed.

These buildings, as well as parking lots and an old firehouse used by a film supply company (see our Friday story) sit on SPURA Site #5. In a presentation last spring, city officials noted there are currently “commercial and residential tenants” on the parcel. Under a section called “restraints,” (to redevelopment) they listed “existing tenants,” but did not go into further detail.

The parcel is particularly desirable as a residential development location because, unlike most of the other sites, it’s set back from Delancey.  On this block, planners have suggested, 300-350 apartments could be built. The current tenants (whose rents range from $54-$250/per month) would, presumably, be relocated somewhere in the SPURA project or elsewhere in the neighborhood.  But Chusid  has no desire to move, and believes the tenants have rights the city is not acknowledging.

The building’s unusual history was hinted at in Kicking Over the Traces, an interactive tour of Seward Park prepared by neighborhood activists a couple of years ago:

(400 Grand is) one of the few old buildings remaining in the Seward Park Extension Renewal Area –  and was the last building to enter the City’s Tenant Interim Lease Program (TIL). The program allowed residents in City-owned buildings to take ownership of their buildings as a cooperative. LES activist Chino Garcia added that one of the organizers who led the fight to save this building was former City Councilwoman and current NYCHA board member Margarita Lopez.

The Tenant Interim Lease Program was created in the late 1970’s in response to the urban homesteading movement in New York City. It was considered an effective way to deal with the glut of abandoned buildings — repossessed by the city and taken over by squatters — on the Lower East Side and in other distressed neighborhoods.

Participants in the low-income TIL program are required to set up tenant associations to run their buildings for several years before they become owners. During this time, the city pays for renovation. If it’s determined the tenants are managing their affairs responsibly, they purchase their apartments for $250 and take on the financial burdens of home ownership.

The view inside Chusid’s apartment.

The ground floor of 400 Grand Street. Visitors are met with crumbling plaster and a decaying staircase.

Chusid believes 400 Grand was accepted into the TIL program two years ago. As proof, he cites a September 2008 letter from Victor Hernandez, the program’s director.  In the letter, Hernandez advised tenants about a building management training session. “Since this is a building in the TIL Program,” he wrote, “you… are required to attend this course.”

That course, Chusid said, was abruptly canceled with little explanation. For 20 months, the tenants heard nothing from HPD.  Then, one day last spring,  Chusid noticed some activity on the ground floor.  Inside the bare space where Ruby’s fruits used to be, he found Joel Kaplan, the executive director of the United Jewish Council of the East Side (UJC).  Kaplan explained that the Jewish Conservancy, an arm of the UJC, had just rented the storefront. Taken aback, Chusid called Hernandez’ office, and was told by an assistant, 400 Grand was no longer managed by the TIL division.

From the Conservancy’s point of view, the opportunity (available only to a non-profit, they were told) was too good to pass up. Not only would they be getting a highly visible headquarters for their neighborhood walking tours — but the rent was a bargain (one-third of the going rate).   The arrangement would be temporary. Kaplan, a member of the SPURA task force, knows as well as anyone the building could be demolished some day. But by that time, the UJC hopes, it will have opened a permanent visitor center inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, a shuttered synagogue on Norfolk Street the organization is working to restore.

What does the city have to say about all of this?  Eric Bederman, HPD press secretary, told me 400 Grand is not in the TIL program and, “there is no restriction on whether the commercial space could be leased to a for-profit or not-for-profit business.”   The Conservancy’s lease, he said, is on a month-to month basis.

In the grand scheme of things, the situation at 400 Grand  is probably not keeping city officials up at night. As the SPURA talks enter an especially delicate phase, their primary concern is making a deal with the community for the redevelopment of the most lucrative holding in their portfolio. But down the road, the concerns of the tenants in this one building could very well become an issue.  In Harlem, the city and Columbia University have found out the hard way what can happen when residents in TIL buildings face displacement.

This is why Chusid is so determined to prove 400 Grand is, in fact, a TIL building  He knows the tenant association will be in a stronger position in the future if he and his neighbors are not simply renters in a city owned building, but owners of a cooperative on a very valuable piece of land. In the past several weeks, Chusid has been making his case all across the neighborhood. He’s sought the help of City Councilmember Margaret Chin, consulted with fellow site tenant Angel Aerial (the movie supply business in the old firehouse) and even tried to woo Essex Street Market butcher Jeffrey Ruhalter.

Chusid said he’s not asking for anything unreasonable. He just wants to stay in his home. There are many examples, he noted, in which developers have built around existing structures.  Could that happen at 400 Grand Street? It seems unlikely. But Chusid, who’s not in the best of health, vows to give it everything he’s got.