TLD Interview: Essex Crossing Development Team Discusses Lower East Side Plans
A year ago next week, a sweeping plan was unveiled to redevelop the former Seward Park urban renewal site adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge, bringing one-thousand new apartments and 600,000 square feet of commercial space to the Lower East Side. Since that time, developers and architects have been hard at work to meet a spring 2015 deadline for groundbreaking on the first four parcels. For an update on their progress, we sat down recently with key members of Delancey Street Associates, the consortium created to build the project, known as Essex Crossing.
Charlie Bendit is co-CEO of Taconic Investment Partners, which along with L+M Partners and BFC Partners, was selected to create the nearly 2-million square foot complex. Isaac Henderson of L+M is the project manager. We met in a conference room ringed with conceptual drawings of Essex Crossing at L+M’s offices on Park Avenue South. Among the headlines from our interview:
- Designs for the first four sites will likely be made public in a couple of months
- Talks are ongoing with the MTA to create subway access inside the new Essex Street Market building
- Attributing escalating prices to Essex Crossing is risky business
- A community outreach director has been hired
- Essex Crossing developers express support for the Lowline
See below for details:
There were some signs of progress in the past week. Although they won’t actually take possession of the properties from the city until next spring, developers submitted preliminary paperwork with the Department of Buildings for a 220,000 square foot building on site 5 that will include about 200 apartments, a large grocery store and other retail businesses.
Members of a community task force have seen renderings from architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle for the building. But Henderson said it would be awhile before the development team is prepared to unveil the final designs to the general public. Phase 1, scheduled to begin in March of next year, encompasses sites 1, 2, 5 and 6. Along with the first 556 apartments, the initial stage includes a new Essex Street Market, a 35,000 square foot grocery, an annex of the Andy Warhol Museum, a multi-screen movie theater, a bowling alley/entertainment complex, a small park and community facilities run by the Educational Alliance and Grand Street Settlement. Construction is slated to begin in September of 2015 on a building consisting of 100 affordable apartments for seniors and a community center on site 6. Henderson explained:
We have made a lot of progress in getting our plans together, taking the conceptual design and putting it to pen and pencil and getting all the details together for the first million square feet. It seems like it’s going at breakneck speed. We’re getting to a point in the design where we’re all getting pretty comfortable with the designs as a team. Our hope is that we can unveil all four of the sites probably together sometime in November or December.
Members of the community task force have made their feelings clear about the look of the Essex Crossing project. There’s a strong desire locally for buildings that are in synch with the Lower East Side’s distinctive character. Here’s what Bendit had to say about the topic:
Design, and a reflection of design on the past and the history of the neighborhood, is all subjective. One of the things we like about our architectural team is that they’re very creative. They’re interpreting the history of this area in a way that we believe will be an enhancement. Obviously you’ve got vacant plots there right now, so anything is going to be an enhancement… We think (the design is) very contextual. It’s different, but not wildly different, and it’s somewhat reminiscent of the history of this neighborhood. If you look around, there are small buildings, four, five, six-story buildings along Ludlow Street and Orchard Street and then you go to the south and the east and you have these tall buildings that were built in the 50’s and 60’s, which were not exactly representative of the history of this neighborhood. So what we’re trying to do is to kind of draw the connection between what was built 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago and what was built 80, 90, 100 years ago, and do something that’s contextual, that fits well and stitches together the various neighborhoods to the north of Delancey Street (and to the south of Delancey). So it’s a bit of a challenge. I think we have great architects that are very creative and have come up with design concepts that we think fit in and, in fact, stitch together the various different architectural elements of the neighborhood.
During the lengthy community board process to create a consensus plan for Seward Park, local stakeholders pushed for multiple architects as a way of making sure the project didn’t look like a typical suburban shopping mall. The city agreed and, as a result, four individual firms are designing Essex Crossing. They are: SHoP, Beyer Blinder Belle, Handel Architects and Hugh A. Boyd of Market Ventures. Henderson said the team is building from the sentiments expressed by the community:
They didn’t want Battery Park City. This is the Lower East Side. It’s one of the great things, especially where Essex Crossing is located, that there really is a diverse epicenter of different communities. You have Chinatown, Lower East Side, Williamsburg, East Village. I think there’s a desire that our architecture distinguishes itself. Each site is designed on its own. We have retained an architect (SHoP) to be a master planner of the site to make sure there is continuity, (But) we really do think the sites should stand on their own, with connectivity to the Lower East Side, with connectivity to each other. What’s exciting about this is that we have four different architects and four different styles. It gives us the opportunity to put together a diverse palette of materials… so you’re not going to see four brick buildings. You’re not going to see four metal buildings. It will be a diverse group of styles but, taken as a whole, I think it’s something people should be really excited about.
Six months from the projected start of construction, many pieces of the complicated project still need to fall into place. Henderson said there’s no timetable yet for demolition of the buildings on site 2 and 5, including the old Essex Street Market building, the former Broome Street firehouse and two tenements at 400 Grand St. “We’d like to undertake those prior to the construction start date of March,” he said, “but we don’t have a concrete date.” As for the completion of phase 1, anticipated in the year 2018, Bendit said it’s an open question whether all of the buildings will be undertaken at the same time. This is because, he explained, each site has its own issues:
Site 2 (at the southeast corner of Delancey and Essex streets), for example, has a number of complicated parts to it. So there’s going to be a movie theater in that site. There’s also a subway station in that site that needs to be worked through. It may take a little bit longer to build than site 1, which is a smaller building and site 5, which is a little more straightforward. Site 1 (on Ludlow Street) also has some complications because we’re going to be putting in a family entertainment concept (a bowling alley below street level) in there and a gym, so there are some structural elements that make it a little more complicated… So there are some complexities to the project, which may make them start a little bit later. We’re hoping to start in March. Maybe it’s a little bit later than that depending on how all of these complicated elements shake out.
As Bendit mentioned, there is a subway entrance on the western border of site 2, the parcel that will be the new home of the Essex Street Market and the gateway to the Market Line, a shopping pavilion that extends all the way to Clinton Street. Ideally, the developers would like to create a new subway passageway leading directly into the market building. We asked what the proposed renovation would entail:
That’s being figured out right now. We have a vision. (It’s a question as to) whether the MTA buys into that vision or whether they have their own ideas. All we agreed to do is to create the space for them to put in their escalators and create access to the platform. Is that the best use of that access? Probably not. We have the Essex Street Market that’s right there. We have the Market Line, which begins right at that building. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have access from the platform right where the fare control is (located) to get right into the Market Line? The MTA not only needs to sign on to that but they need to get approvals for the basic plan, which needs to be worked through… They move at their own pace. Getting (the MTA) to sign on to a plan that works for everybody, you know, they have their own timetable.
Many of the stores at Essex Crossing will, no doubt, serve the local community, but for the project to be successful, it will need to attract people from all over the city and visitors to New York from around the world. Bendit talked about what he sees as the big attractions:
We think the Market Line is a significant amenity that’s going to be somewhat unique, much like Chelsea Market was a draw and was a unique amenity for the neighborhood and, in fact, has drawn people from outside of the neighborhood. We expect that the Market Line will draw people, and then it’s what we do to create a unique retail concept. Food is a big part of entertainment today, so our theme is all about food. One of the interesting things about the neighborhood is it’s a multi-ethnic neighborhood that has deep history and deep roots in many different nationalities, and we’d like to draw that out and celebrate that through what we create down below in the Market Line.
While the developers are building the new Essex Street Market, the city will continue to operate the facility as a public market. Are there any concerns about creating two separate entities – the Essex Street Market and the Market Line – that will be operated independent of one another? Here’s what Bendit and Henderson had to say:
Bendit: The Essex Street Market is in the 100% (prime) location. It is at the gateway to the whole complex. So I think the Essex Street Market will be the primary beneficiary of what else we are able to create along Broome Street and along Delancey Street, both at street level and below street level… They are the place people are going to go first. We think that they are going to end up being the draw and we hope the space that is created there will be a (magnet) for people who will then want to continue on through the experience from Essex Street down to Clinton Street.
Henderson: We view a thriving, revitalized Essex Street Market as the most important component to our retail being successful. Why are people going to come down here?’ It starts with the Essex Street Market, this dynamic public market that has been there for 100 years in this new, revitalized beautiful space — you get people there and then they come to us (in the Market Line)… If they’re not successful, we are not successful, so we want to make sure (the two entities) are complementary, that they build off one another… We’re ultimately building and designing this space in connection with (the NYC Economic Development Corp.) and the market vendors… We’re (also) working closely with the company (Market Ventures) who will be managing the Essex Street Market. So we’re in this for the long haul and we have a team that will be here for a long time. [Clarification: city officials say Market Ventures is offering advice regarding the future operations of the market, but it has not been decided what entity will manage the new facility.]
Aside from the food focused attractions, Bendit said he’s enthusiastic about the Warhol Museum, a 10,000 square foot branch of the Pittsburgh-based institution dedicated to the pop art icon:
(The museum) will be a major draw for this location. There will be a lot of people coming down to go to the Warhol Museum. There are a lot of galleries opening up on the Lower East Side and we expect that there will be more galleries coming… There are going to be a lot of things drawing people to this neighborhood (from other parts of Manhattan) and, of course, there’s Williamsburg across the river. People will be taking the subway, walking across the bridge. The Domino Sugar Plant will be redeveloped over the next 5-7 years… So there’s a connectivity there, as well, that we shouldn’t ignore.
Warhol Museum executives were relatively silent following the unveiling of the initial Essex Crossing plans last year. In May, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Director Eric Shiner as saying the annex would allow the museum to “exhibit more of the collection to a wider, more international audience.” He added, “New York is the amuse bouche” for the Pittsburgh facility. Henderson explained how the association with the museum developed:
The simple answer is that one of our partners, BFC, had a longstanding relationship with the East Village and, specifically, arts and culture and through those relationships, Don Capoccia (BFC’s managing partner) has cultivated relationships at the Warhol Museum and the foundation and has contemplated for a long time the possibility of doing a partnership. When a site of this scale became available, it started to make sense as a possible location. You build on top of that that Andy Warhol is sort of the quintessential New York City artist. People identify Andy in New York more than any other place, not to slight Pittsburgh which has a very strong connection to him as well. But it’s clear when people come to New York City, Andy Warhol is at the top of the list… Andy’s whole scene, his art was downtown. It may not have been only the Lower East Side but certainly the East Village, certainly Union Square, everything below 34th Street. So it was sort of a perfect storm where you had a site large enough to incorporate that.
Another possible attraction on the Lower East Side is not part of the Essex Crossing plan, but it has definitely caught the attention of the development team. The Lowline, a proposed park and cultural space below Delancey Street, sits adjacent to the the Seward Park site. Co-founders Dan Barasch and James Ramsey have been lobbying the MTA, which controls the 60,000 square foot space, for access to the abandoned trolley station. The Essex Crossing developers say they hope the Lowline happens:
Henderson: We are very supportive of the Lowline. We think it would be a tremendous opportunity to both give us visibility and access to sites 3 and 4, the Market Line space, and, in a perfect world there would be both connections between the Lowline (and the Essex Crossing project). There’s (also) a tremendous need on the Lower East Side in general for urban greenery (and) to have the Lowline… bring almost an acre in additional green space, we’re 100% supportive. What makes things difficult is that we don’t control the Lowline space and nor does the Lowline control the Lowline space. It’s something they’re working to try to make happen and we’re supportive of it but there’s only so much we can do. At the end of the day, it’s the MTA’s space. They have to be on board and, second, I think the current administration has to be somewhat supportive of it… So we’re supportive, we’re friends with Dan and James. We’re well aware of their plans. We’ve shared our plans with them and would love the Lowline to happen and to connect to our project but we’re not the project managers and we’re not the ones who are going to make it happen.
Bendit: If you see what the High Line has done for the far West Side, we think the Lowline has the same opportunity to create something very special for this area, the impact of which it’s hard to even forecast. You look at the High Line. Who knew? No one would have predicted the impact it has had on that whole area and what a draw it would be for tourists from all over the world who go down to West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District that might have gone there, but now, for certain, they’re going there to see what the High Line is all about.
For many months, real estate brokers have been touting the impact of Essex Crossing on real estate values. Sale prices in the immediate area are spiraling. The developers have been approached by a number of owners hoping to cash in on one of the city’s highest profile development projects. In one instance, the owner of 75 Essex St., adjacent to site 1, has listed his building for $30 million. In another case, the congregation of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, a landmark-protected synagogue on Norfolk Street, has approached the developers about taking the distressed building off his hands. Speaking about these properties, Bendit said:
We have had discussions with the owner of 75 Essex and we have had discussions with the rabbi who controls the synagogue. If we could come to reasonable terms with those people, I think we would like to continue to benefit from what it is we are creating along Delancey and Essex Street and Broome Street.
In other words, there’s not much to report. On the broader subject of escalating real estate prices as a result of Essex Crossing, Bendit had more to say:
I don’t know that you can single out the Lower east Side and the impact Essex Crossing has had any differently than you could draw parallels to what’s going on in Hudson Yards or 57th Street or parts of Brooklyn, many parts of Manhattan… I’m not sure that what is going on in the Lower East Side is any different than what’s going on in the rest of the city. New York City is a fantastic place. People want to live here. People want to work here. People want to come and visit here. As long as this city continues to be that kind of center of attention from people who want to live, work and play here then values are going to continue to rise. And I think in the last 20-25 years we have seen a significant improvement to the quality of life in New York City… The Lower East Side will benefit from that. There’s a lot of history on the Lower east Side. People want to come and see where some of their ancestors came to the U.S. and where they put down their roots and where they grew from…(But) it is difficult to really single out the Lower East Side as a place that’s seeing more dramatic change than other places.
Bendit said Delancey Street Associates is in conversations with several big prospective tenants, including a grocery store and a movie theater operator. But there’s nothing to announce right now. During the summer, they hired Annel Cabrera as director of community relations. She’ll be responsible for reaching out to local residents for available construction jobs and also disseminating information about construction issues, once shovels are in the ground.
In closing, Bendit said:
We are as excited about being a part of this community as we were (a year ago when Delancey Street Associates won the Seward Park project). One of the great things that we have experienced is the opportunity to work with the community. It was always specualative about how that was going to work. To Isaac’s credit and the team that we have put together to support him, we have found that it has been a very good collaboration. We’d like to see that continue. There’s been an open dialogue. There’s been feedback. There’s been give and take on thoughts and ideas and we hope that will continue as this project evolves.