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TLD Interview: Harold (Heshy) Jacob on SPURA

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Sheldon Silver with Heshy Jacob. Photo: Grand Street News.

No one ever accused Harold “Heshy” Jacob of holding back. A dominant figure on Grand Street for more than 30 years, he has strong opinions and is not afraid to express them loud enough for everyone to hear. Calling him the “architect of the privatization of some 4700 units in Co-Op Village,” Yori Yanover of the Grand Street News once wrote, Jacob (East River & Hillman general manager) is “often more general than manager.”

Over the years, Jacob has been a central figure in the bitter battles over the future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). Last week, I sat down with him for a wide-ranging conversation about SPURA, his opposition to affordable housing on the five remaining development sites in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge and his thoughts on what should be done with the parcels.  Before, during and after the interview, Jacob emphasized he was only speaking for himself — not for any of the cooperatives or for the United Jewish Council of the East Side, where he’s board chairman.

For the past year or so, a diverse group of community activists, working within Community Board 3, has been trying to come up with a broadly supported plan for the SPURA site.   Jacob is not part of that process. In fact, he believes it is “an exercise in futility.”  But in the near future, Jacob said, he intends to meet with elected officials to discuss an alternative proposal focused on commercial development, rather than housing.

As regular readers of The Lo-Down know, we have been conducting a series of interviews with key people on the LES about SPURA. Among them: Damaris Reyes of GOLES, Michael Zisser from University Settlement and Michael Tumminia, president of the Seward Park Co-op.  The idea is to provide a forum for neighborhood leaders to fully express their views on a subject that has divided the Lower East Side for 43 years.

Heshy Jacob’s family has a 100 year history in the neighborhood. The building his grandparents lived in near Ridge and Grand streets was still standing until a few years ago. Born on 5th Street & Avenue D, he later moved to Grand Street and never wanted to live anywhere else. “I have chosen to live here and I could have lived someplace else,” he told me. “I like to live here. It’s an integrated community. I have chosen to bring up my children in a neighborhood that has all kinds of people living here. That’s the real world.”

Jacob has seen many changes on Grand Street. In the 30s,  labor unions began to build the cooperatives, sweeping away tenement buildings Governor Alfred E. Smith called “unfit for human habitation.”  The area just beyond the co-ops (the Seward park Urban Renewal Area) was bulldozed to make room for new construction in 1967. Four low-income housing projects went up on part of SPURA. But all these years, those five remaining parcels (the largest development site south of 96th Street) have eluded redevelopment. I asked Jacob why he believes it’s been so difficult to build on those lots:

They haven’t remained undeveloped. The city came in and knocked down the property. 1300 units have been rebuilt on the property, all low-income, okay. So to say that the property has remained undeveloped (is incorrect). Hong Ning Housing was put up. The UJC Bialystoker was put up. It’s a senior citizens building, and I’m proud to say it’s more integrated than any other development in the area. I challenge the Grand Street Guild or Hong Ning Housing to prove the integration level. About 30-40 percent of that building are Chinese, Russian, Jewish, Black and Hispanic. It’s the only building, that’s under Jewish auspices that’s a fully integrated building. Hong Ning put up a building, I would say to you that it’s 100% segregated. I would tell you that the Grand Street Guild is probably 90% segregated. Seward Park Extension is probably almost all Hispanic and Black. So the only thing that ever got built here in an integrated fashion was under the auspices of the Jewish Council.

Grand Street Guild & St. Mary’s Catholic Church

Affordable housing advocates have long argued the city failed to live up to a promise made four decades ago to provide new homes to residents displaced. They have insisted that the former site tenants (still alive) and their families be accommodated in any new SPURA development.  Based on news accounts from the era, about 1800 people lost their homes when the urban renewal area was bulldozed.  But since that time, Jacob says,  housing for 1244 residents has been restored. He cited the following statistics:

  • Grand Street Guild (originally developed by St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church): 600 residents
  • Hong Ning Senior Housing (Chinese American Planning Council): 156 residents
  • Seward Park Extension (NYCHA): 360 residents
  • Orenstein Building (United Jewish Council): 128 residents

Beyond the numbers, Jacob says, is the question of who has a “right” to residency on the SPURA site:

They claim there were 2,000 families living on the site. When? When it went under hammer on the date of condemnation. But what did that community look like two years earlier when the city announced it would be condemned? It was all Jewish. But the minute they said it was condemned, the Jews left. Hispanics and blacks may have moved in and now they’re saying they’re the ones that have the right to on-site tenancy when they weren’t the basic community that was there for 60 years earlier. So if their argument is an argument, let’s go find the people who were there two years earlier and let’s give them the right to return to that property. That’s a ridiculous argument. It’s ridiculous. But if you want to make that argument, my response is ‘we’ve already built 1244 low income units.’ The site already has 65% of what it was, so they’ve already returned. Now was everyone living there poor and hispanic? Black? No they weren’t. So the answer is, when Congress gives you money for the purpose of building low income they don’t intend for something to be built as a segregated neighborhood. That area is all segregated. There’s no integration… (According to Congress and the City) there must be economic integration, there must be ethnic integration. So therefore, what they’re calling for is adding to the lack of integration. When 50% of the population is already segregated by economics, to add to that problem is something we can’t agree with.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

So what does Jacob want to see happen with the site? “I believe the property should be developed,” he said.  “My position is that this area should be developed to produce jobs and economic development.” Making the argument that the Lower East Side has already absorbed far more than its fair share of affordable housing, he pointed to these figures from the City of New York:

  • Over 13,000 people (LES/Chinatown) living in subsidized housing (not counting residents  in the SPURA developments outlined above)
  • 49% of the population in Community District 3 receiving some form of public assistance
  • 60,000 residents (out of 160,000) on Medicaid)

Jacob says these numbers speak volumes about the needs of the community:

It’s fair to say that the unemployment rate here is higher than in any other part of the Borough of Manhattan except for South Harlem. If the city says ‘let’s build low income housing, let’s add to the already impacted community, which does not have enough jobs, enough social services for this community,’ my answer to this – jobs. My answer is come up with an economic development package to add jobs for those people who are unemployed. Now if you say to me there’s a need for low income housing or affordable housing, my answer to you, is it needed here or is it needed? The answer is it is needed. Not here. Why? Because if I was a businessman like mayor Bloomberg I would say to myself, ‘what is that land worth?’

Jacob believes the city-owned SPURA parcels were worth about $500/square foot at the top of the market a few years ago. Today, he estimated, the land would go for about $250/square foot:

So you have a piece of property with a potential value of $250 million, so let’s build low income there? That’s probably the stupidest thing you’re going to hear from me all day long. What I would do is cross-subsidize. Take the $250 million, take a piece of property within 5 miles of this area – which you can’t get 250 cents for – such as going to Bed Stuy, going to Greenpoint – take that $250 million and build housing with it. Come here, build economic development, jobs, schools, add 3 or 4 thousand jobs to the neighborhood and now what you got is three bites of the apple not two.

Many of the people who want to create more low income housing in this neighborhood argue that residents who have lived in the here for decades should not be pushed out by the effects of gentrification.  Jacobs’ response?

Does that mean I have a right to say that my mother — owned a house on 318 East 4th Street that she sold for $12,000 — that’s now worth $1 million and that I have a right of return? That’s like the terrorists in Gaza. I have a right of return. You know what happens in the United States? There’s a concept called gentrification. Neighborhoods change. This is once an old Jewish neighborhood. Now it’s Hispanic. It’s Jewish, Hispanic, Italian, Black, Chinese. Do we have a right to say we want it to go back to being what it was? Economics is what rules a free society. It’s Capitalism.

In CB3’s deliberations, the term, “affordable housing” has not yet been defined. It means different things to different people. Many members of the committee would like to see middle income housing, in addition to low income housing, in any future SPURA development. Jacob:

I have porters working in my development. Do you know what they make? It costs me $54,000 – they’re members of the union. They get about $40,000 a year, $13,000 in benefits. Let me assure you, if you’re talking about a teacher and a cop… (two income family) you’re talking about an income of $120-150 thousand a year. So certainly that’s not middle income by the standards that GOLES is talking about.

So when Jacob talks about economic development, what does he mean?

I’m talking about bringing in people like Bruce Ratner, bringing in Trump, bringing in the best developers that do economic development and say to them ‘my goal here is to produce as many jobs for the community people.’ I would also make it a requirement that any economic development done here – the jobs should be given to the local people first.

Would he want to see a suburban-style shopping mall or, say, a big box store, on the Lower East Side?

We had an idea that we developed years ago – an international mall. We have a community that has Chinese, Italian, Jews, Hispanic, Black, Polish, Russian… Now we used to be an area, you couldn’t get a parking spot here because people would come down here to shop. The malls have taken that away from us. But if we built an international mall that attracted every ethnic group back to the Lower East Side – it would number one give people the ability to start climbing the economic ladder… If it ended up being a box store I would agree with it being a box store.

I asked Jacob whether he had spoken with any elected officials about the idea:

Yes. If you want to know, we’re going to meet with the elected officials but for me to sit down and meet with the elected officials, if they have 10 cents worth of brains, you know what they’re going to tell me, ‘what are you bothering me for? There’s no money around… I’m not going to talk about the politics of it because I’m not going to tell you what (U.S. Rep.) Carolyn Maloney believes, because I don’t know. I don’t know what *Mr. (Daniel) Squadron (State Senator) believes. I don’t know. And I know what Margaret Chin (City Council member) believes, or I know what she said she believed, and I don’t know what she believes now. But Margaret Chin will have to face election, and Margaret Chin will have to determine how much of a battle she wants to go into Grand Street with.

And how about Sheldon Silver, a fellow Grand Street resident, who Jacob has known for 30 years? “Shelly Silver? I don’t know what he believes. How do you like that?,” he said. Even though he’s said very little about it publicly, numerous newspaper articles over the years have suggested Silver, one of New York’s most powerful politicians, is an obstacle to SPURA redevelopment. The New York Times, 1994:

Mr. Silver has faced tough criticism for not backing plans for low-income housing in the Seward Park development. He is also accused of not supporting efforts to integrate the heavily Jewish cooperative buildings along Grand Street. Over the years, those buildings have served as both a home and a political base…

Silver has always pointed out that SPURA is a city issue. “At some point,” he told The Villager last year,  “there will be a plan that is acceptable to the community.”   In the Village Voice, he called for “a locally driven process to develop plans for the site with all ‘stakeholders’ participating.” This is how Jacobs responded when I asked about the perception that Silver had killed previous proposals: “I don’t know that. Do you have any piece of paper that proves that?… Why are you making that statement?,” he asked. He then added:

You may believe it’s Shelly Silver who stopped it. I may believe it’s other people who stopped it. Maybe it’s me? I don’t believe that either… I think he’s said it. Does it sound like we have a consensus? So what did he tell you? Shelly Silver is a very bright man. There’s a saying, here’s nothing – watch it carefully – you see what was in my hand? Nothing. So what did Shelly Silver tell you? Nothing. But he told you nothing and you walked away thinking you got something. See, he’s a very smart man. He said, “if there’s a consensus.” Do you hear consensus?

Silver has a community liaison attending CB3’s monthly meetings. City planning officials have also been sitting in on the discussions. Jacob is not convinced their involvement means very much at all:

You know what? I could send you my chief porter and you’d think he’s representing East River. The fact that they have some city planners running around – they’re not the decision makers who are going to make this happen. When you’re negotiating for the purchase of a company you deal with the principles. I haven’t heard from any of the principles who have the ability to actually make it happen tell us anything. ll the city planners in the world can say what they want. They work for the city planning commission. They’re assigned to the community boards, and they say ‘okay, come up with a plan.’ That and a token will get you into a subway, because number one there is no money to develop anything today. I can tell you that there are probably 400-500 sites in the Borough of Manhattan, I think the number is actually 546, which are currently… either holes in the ground or super-structures that have been built that can’t (be finished) because there’s no money. So it might be a wishful thought in somebody’s mind, but even if we came up with the best plan in the world and everybody agreed, I can tell what they would do is scratch their head and this plan… would go to the bottom drawer… and it would go no place because there’s no construction money, there’s no private money, there’s no federal money… So i think this is an exercise in futility, beat your head into the wall. Since they think we can’t come up with a plan they say ‘you come up with a plan and we’ll talk.’ … It’s an exercise in futility to deal with it when there’s no money.

On more than one occasion, the chairman of the CB3 committee, David McWater has said either side (Grand Street residents/affordable housing advocates) have the political power to stop any plan they don’t like. Jacob’s skeptical about at least one part of that assertion:

I don’t believe that. I accept one part of the premise because one part of the premise has been proven. I believe the affordable housing people are much overrated. I believe many of them don’t even live down here… I don’t want to say what anybody can and cannot do. But there’s no ability to build affordable housing at this particular point. So they can have any plan they want. They’re going no place with it.


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  1. Donald Trump aside, there is a surprising amount of common ground between Mr. Jacob’s vision and the community’s vision as laid out in our report, “Community Voices and the Future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.” Local jobs were a major community priority, too.

    I am certain that the Community Board would welcome Mr. Jacob’s contributions to a community consensus.

    And as for Mr. Jacob’s ad hominem arguments:

    “Ben Azzai also used to say: Despise no man and deem nothing impossible; for there is no man who does not have his day and there is no thing that does not have its place.”
    -Pirkei Avot 4.3

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