What The New York Times Got Wrong About Essex Crossing

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The other day in The New York Times, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman called the Essex Crossing project, “one of New York’s most promising new mixed-use developments.” He even dubbed it the “anti-Hudson Yards.” The Lower East Side mega-project, with its “boxy, mostly bland exteriors,” did not win him over for its aesthetics, but because it is the product of, “long years of ground-up neighborhood consultation and holistic planning.”

Kimmelman makes some legitimate points about Essex Crossing, but his review contains at least one major factual error and several mischaracterizations.  Let’s take a closer look.

In recounting the contentious history of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), he noted that former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his pal, William Rapfogel, successfully blocked affordable housing from being built on the sites for decades. Kimmelman wrote, “Mayor after mayor failed to make headway. Ultimately, Mr. Silver was convicted on corruption charges, Mr. Rapfogel went to prison for a kickback scheme and a path cleared for Essex Crossing…”

Sheldon Silver on Grand Street in 2011.

Sheldon Silver on Grand Street in 2011.

That’s just not what happened. Silver was arrested in January of 2015, four years after a community task force agreed on development guidelines, a framework that Silver endorsed at the time (the project developers were named in September of 2013). His arrest and conviction have cast Silver’s role in the Seward Park saga in a different and unsavory light, but it’s simply wrong to assert that Essex Crossing happened as a result of his downfall.

This may seem like a trivial matter, but it really isn’t. The project is a reality today because a diverse collection of local activists came together to finally break an impasse that had vexed the community for four decades. They spent more than three years in often tense negotiations, collaborating with city planning and housing officials, to finally make a deal. After Community Board 3 approved the SPURA planning guidelines in January of 2011, there were still many hurdles to clear for the project to win final approval. But this was the most critical step.  Federal prosecutors can obviously claim credit for taking Silver down. It was members of the Lower East Side community, however, who cleared the way for redevelopment of the Seward Park sites.

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While Kimmelman wrote that, “Essex Crossing results from long years of ground-up neighborhood consultation and holistic planning,” he downplayed the role played by the community in shaping the project as it exists today. It’s true that the development team — Delancey Street Associates — has worked collaboratively with neighborhood leaders and embraced the local vision for the Seward Park sites. But what gets lost in the Times’ piece is this unambiguous fact: the SPURA Task Force laid out in detail what the project would become.

The more-or-less 50/50 mix between market rate and below-market rate apartments? Protections for the Essex Street Market vendors? Assurances that former SPURA site tenants would have first dibs on affordable apartments? A publicly accessible park on Broome Street? A commitment to making sure there’s no “poor door” at Essex Crossing and that market rate apartments and affordable apartments are integrated? Buildings that feature varied architectural styles and are contextual to the neighborhood? A new grocery store? All of these features were spelled out in excruciating detail in the community’s planning and design guidelines.

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Now Delancey Street Associates has delivered on the plan and city officials from both the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations deserve some credit for making sure of that. And the developers have added some of their own innovations. They were required to create a new, expanded home for the Essex Market. To their credit, they not only ensured that the market serves as a centerpiece of the whole project, but they also committed to creating the Market Line, a subterranean shopping pavilion under three Essex Crossing buildings that is meant to showcase unique, small-scale New York-centric businesses. Time will tell whether both the Market Line and the new Essex Market  will be successful. Concerns have been raised lately about a glut of food halls across the city; they’re seemingly an amenity that every high-profile mega-project must have! But with vendors like the Pickle Guys, Nom Wah, Veselka and Essex Pearl, you can’t say the developers are not making an effort to keep the Market Line local.

Kimmelman points out that the developers, in a savvy move, decided to deliver many of the community benefits (most of the affordable housing, a medical center, the Essex Market, etc.) in the early phases of construction.  He also makes this point:

The project’s developers expect to rake in plenty of cash from all the market-rate condos, apartment rentals and commercial office and retail spaces. Rising real estate values on the Lower East Side have accelerated neighborhood gentrification but also helped subsidize the project’s abundance of affordable housing and community services. I was curious to learn that Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t yet showed up for any of the official openings at Essex Crossing. Its profitability makes a good argument for demanding more in the way of public benefits from other large-scale private developments.

There may be some truth in this assertion, but here again Kimmelman is only telling part of the story. The city always envisioned the Seward Park project as a self-sustaining development which did not rely on a lot of city subsidies. The market rate apartments and commercial rents do help fund the affordable housing and community amenities. But here’s a huge caveat.  The developers purchased the SPURA land for around $500 million, perhaps half what it was worth at the time. City officials always said that this discounted price served as a kind of subsidy of its own in which the developers agreed to provide affordable housing and other goodies for the community in exchange for the bargain land deal.  Could developers in projects across the city provide more benefits to local communities? Of course they could. But it’s deceptive to portray Essex Crossing as just another private development. It is being built on formerly public land.

Renderings show the East River waterfront with four new large-scale towers.

Renderings show the East River waterfront with four new large-scale towers.

One last point.  Kimmelman wrote:

If you have been anywhere near the Lower East Side lately you could hardly have failed to notice the egregious new supertall that the opportunistic developer called Extell has imposed some blocks away along the waterfront around the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Other developers are now bidding to erect more towers there. Taking advantage of anomalous zoning regulations, these projects have provoked some very loud, angry protests from residents who feel the buildings are being shoved down the throats of a largely poor, immigrant, low- and mid-rise community.

Really? Who are those “other developers” seeking to build more “supertall” towers on the waterfront? As many Lower East Siders know, the co-developer of one of these projects is L+M Development Partners, a lead partner in the Essex Crossing development consortium.  Local activists and community groups are now in court trying to block the waterfront projects. Wasn’t it kind of important to acknowledge this?

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A lot of Lower East Side residents have mixed feelings about Essex Crossing. We can appreciate what has been brought to the neighborhood: more affordable housing, a sustainable Essex Market (we hope), Trader Joe’s! At the same time, everyone recognizes that the Lower East Side, one of New York’s last authentic neighborhoods, will never be the same. The project is without question an engine of gentrification. Many locals would agree that Essex Crossing is a “model development.” We can acknowledge that without buying into faulty narratives about how the project came to fruition over the past decade.