The Lower East Side is in the midst of its biggest construction boom in decades. Several projects now underway are reshaping the neighborhood. Now residents fear another large-scale residential development is about to be unleashed on a community weary of pile driving, barricaded sidewalks and cranes.
For many years, the owners of the Grand Street Guild apartment complex have been thinking of building one or two more buildings on their property. Three 26-story towers were put up in 1974 on the land surrounding St. Mary’s Church, between Clinton and Pitt streets. The project was sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York, which still controls the Project-Based Section 8 complex through a not-for-profit board.
During the past few months, many tenants have been convinced that Grand Street Guild is already making plans for new buildings. At a meeting held Feb. 22 to discuss maintenance issues, an owner’s representative was quizzed by both residents and elected officials in attendance about the guild’s intentions.
The questions were prompted by a Jan. 31 letter to tenants from Wavecrest Management, which operates the buildings. It read, in part, “You may soon notice some activity involving drilling equipment within the Grand Street Guild Property. This activity… is necessary to provide geotechnical analysis for future site improvements.”
The residents, of course, wanted to know what “site improvements” might be in store and asked Tony Savarese, who represents the Grand Street Guild Housing Development Fund Company (HDFC), for an explanation. He would say only that no plans have been submitted or approved but that, “if we proceed, our priority is to build affordable housing. We believe there is a need for affordable housing.”
State Sen. Daniel Squadron was one of several elected officials on hand for the meeting. He tried, unsuccessfully, to draw out a more illuminating response from Savarese. Squadron asked for a commitment from the owners to come back to the tenant association by June to update their plans. Following the tenant association gathering, Squadron told The Lo-Down, “Residents spoke loud and clear that a lack of clarity regarding development plans — and the idea that development is a done deal — is not acceptable. It’s important that management come back to the community before any decisions are made, as they committed to me at the meeting.”
There’s obviously no way of knowing what exactly the owners intend to build until Department of Buildings permits are filed. When the three existing towers were constructed in the 1970s, a lot of available floor area was left unused (more than 600,000 square feet according to our calculations).
In October of 2015, according to documents filed with the state, the HDFC created a separate company called “Clinton Broome Development LLC.” Development rights were shifted to a merged zoning lot now held by the new development firm.
Speculation regarding proposed building sites has centered on two parcels. One is the current parking garage used by Grand Street Guild tenants, located on the southeast corner of Clinton and Broome streets. The other is a parcel currently housing the Little Star Daycare Center at 151 Broome St. Public records also show that Clinton Broome Development LLC has hired the lobbying firm, Geto & de Milly, to represent its interests before the City Council.
Both lots are adjacent to the Essex Crossing development project, now under construction in the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. Two out of four buildings in Essex Crossing’s first phase border Grand Street Guild’s property.
At the recent meeting, residents made it clear they will fight any new development.
The tenant association organized the question and answer session to address several ongoing maintenance and safety issues. Earlier this year, the elevators in one building, 460 Grand St., were out of commission for several days. In January of 2016, a 25-year-old man was killed in an elevator accident at the complex. Last fall, residents went for weeks without cooking gas.
Tenants say management should get a handle on the existing buildings before undertaking any new projects.
In October, City Council member Margaret Chin and other elected officials wrote to the regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about the ongoing troubles at Grand Street Guild. The issues, Chin wrote, call “into question the quality of recent renovations, and merit a full and timely investigation…” In 2010, the federal government helped finance a $60 million renovation at the Grand Street complex. The administrator, Holly Leight, agreed to meet with Chin, but that meeting has not yet occurred (the changeover from the Obama to the Trump administration is apparently a factor).
During the February meeting, Chin told the residents that they (and the broader community). “need to be vigilant and to organize” in order to protect a valuable source of affordable housing on the Lower East Side. Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou told the management team, “I hope you’re listening” (to the tenants)… I’m watching.” She added that there’s a clear need for more transparency in the operations of the housing complex. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Public Advocate Letitia James also spoke on behalf of the residents. James said there’s obviously a need for a “binding legal document” protecting the tenants.
Daisy Paez, tenant association president, said, “We need to make sure those buildings don’t go up.” In an email message sent to the owners last week, she added, “How can you even consider (the new buildings) you are describing as ‘affordable housing’ when the the existing buildings are not being maintained?”
Other residents have questioned recent transactions by the HDFC. Last year, the organization secured new loans for the Grand Street properties from Red Mortgage Capital for nearly $170 million. Tenants worry that the owners are using their buildings as financial leverage for new construction and that their Section 8 contract could potentially be at risk.
For the moment, however, there’s little they can do but wait for management’s next move.