On a blustery fall day in 2009, Frances Goldin joined fellow affordable housing activists on a desolate stretch of Suffolk Street. At an annual vigil marking the displacement of 2,000 residents from the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), she climbed up on a rickety platform and demanded the right of return for those tenants. Forty-two years after demolition, it seemed like a futile plea. So last month, on Jan. 29, it was an extraordinary moment when the first building officially opened on the former SPURA site. Goldin was not only present for the ribbon cutting ceremony; she was the guest of honor. The 14-story tower at 175 Delancey St. has been named The Frances Goldin Senior Apartments.
Although the first residents moved in weeks ago, the event was essentially the coming out party for the SPURA project, now branded Essex Crossing. 175 Delancey St. is one of four buildings in the first phase of construction. There will be a glitzier opening later this year when a new Essex Street Market debuts as the centerpiece of the 1.9 million square foot mega-project. But the January event at this building, which includes 99 affordable senior apartments, had an especially local feel.
The celebration was held in the building’s light-filled fourth floor senior center, which is run by Grand Street Settlement. The developers (Delancey Street Associates) were on hand, as well as city officials, members of Community Board 3 and several former SPURA site tenants who now occupy apartments at 175 Delancey St.
Goldin, 93, received a plaque and accolades from a succession of speakers. She needed a little help getting to the podium, but once there, Goldin was clearly energized. She pumped her fist, and told the crowd, “I am honored to have my name associated with this beautiful building… (which) will provide quality, accessible housing to 100 of my deserved neighbors. Thank you for this honor!”
Lisa Kaplan, a longtime member of Community Board 3, was given the task of telling Goldin’s story. They first met in 1973 when Kaplan began working for a program at Grand Street Settlement meant to give former site tenants a voice in planning their new community. Goldin was a leader of a coalition called the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, which spent decades advocating for low-income housing on the SPURA site. In an essay written for last month’s occasion, Kaplan explained why the urban renewal parcels remained dormant for so long.
“Fearful of racial and economic integration,” she said, “the power elite of the neighborhood had halted the development plans in their tracks. Seward Park became an iconic struggle, pitting the largely middle class, already assimilated residents against the newer Latino, and some Asian, immigrants in the community.”
At that 2009 rally on Suffolk Street, Goldin was considerably more direct. “It hasn’t happened,” she said gesturing to the Grand Street Cooperative buildings in the distance, “because the people who ran the co-ops… didn’t want to be surrounded by tenants who were darker skinned and spoke Spanish. That is racism. That is ugly. That is anti-humanitarian.”
The old “power elite” on the Lower East Side was nowhere to be seen at last month’s celebration. For years, of course, the powerful assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, blocked the construction of new affordable housing on the SPURA site. He finally relented in 2011, after a community task force struck a compromise for 50% affordable/50% market rate housing. Silver and Goldin were bitter foes. Upon seizing power in Albany in 1994, the new speaker called Goldin, “a person who gets paid to make sure there’s controversy” and who “obviously wants to deny her birth” as a Jew. At the Jan. 29 ceremony, Goldin was honored for a lifetime of community activism, while Silver awaits retrial on federal corruption charges (he was ejected from the assembly in 2015 at about the same time the first Essex Crossing buildings were breaking ground). Goldin told NY1 last month “We succeeded and he failed, and that’s good.”
Goldin and her fellow housing activists did not get everything they wanted. She would have preferred a 100% affordable project on the SPURA site, but was ultimately willing to compromise. It was impossible to watch the festivities on that day last month without thinking about how much has changed on the Lower East Side since Goldin’s days of railing against mayors and real estate developers.
Among the speakers was Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, the former Goldman Sachs executive who’s been under fire from affordable housing activists. She made reference to SPURA’s, “very tragic legacy of evicting families that had been (on the Lower East Side) for so many generations.” Glen added, “Administrations kept changing, but one thing that didn’t change is that this community never forgot the promises that were made in those early days. They never stopped pushing. They never gave up.”
City Councilmember Margaret Chin also spoke, saying the first Essex Crossing building is, “a dream come true for seniors in our community who now have accessible, age-friendly and above all, affordable homes.” She looked back on the contentious negotiations between the community board and city officials to make the SPURA project happen. Chin noted that the city only wanted to guarantee affordability for 60 years, a stance that was a deal breaker for CB3. “The city,” said Chin, “they heard loud and clear from the community that nothing but permanent affordable housing was acceptable… They decided to go all the way, and that’s how SPURA came about.”
From the beginning, the community board insisted on the right of return for former site tenants. There’s been a huge effort during the past few years to locate families who lived on the urban renewal parcels in 1967. Six of them now have apartments at 175 Delancey St.
One resident, Elsie Rivera, recalled living at 53 Suffolk St. decades ago. Her family moved to Brooklyn after a fire destroyed their apartment, well before buildings on SPURA were condemned. Rivera entered an affordable housing lottery last year, after hearing about it from old friends on the Lower East Side. She just moved into her new home a few weeks ago. “It’s amazing,” said Rivera. “It is a blessing from God.”
Another tenant, David Santiago, was just 6 years old when his family was forced to vacate an apartment at 161 Clinton St. After years of living in California, he came back to New York to care for an ailing parent (his mom lives in the Grand Street Guild apartments). Santiago, a chef, said he doubted anything would ever be built on the SPURA parcels. He had become involved with a local group, the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition (SPARC). which has helped locate former tenants. Santiago decided to apply for an apartment himself, and moved in to the Delancey Street building about six weeks ago. Asked how he feels, Santiago said, “I think it’s a good thing. Despite the time that it took to happen — it happened. It got done. I’m just happy all the way around.”
More milestones are ahead in the Essex Crossing project. Eight more former SPURA tenants are moving into another building, 145 Clinton St., this month. Meanwhile, a grand opening is scheduled March 16 for the GrandLo Cafe, a non-profit social enterprise venture run by Grand Street Settlement (the cafe is located on the ground floor of the senior building).
At the ribbon cutting, Grand Street’s executive director, Robert Cordero, called it, “the first step in righting a historic wrong.” The opening, he said, comes with an implicit promise, “to serve this community, which will not be broken.”
Essex Crossing is a collaboration among BFC Partners, L+M Development Partners, Taconic Investment Partners and the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group. The $1.1 billion project will eventually include more than 1,000 apartments, a new Essex Street Market, a shopping pavilion called the Market Line, a medical center from NYU Langone, among other amenities.