They're Freaking Out Down On Manhattan's Lower East Side Waterfront

One of the important functions of this blog is to keep you hicks in the hinterlands up to date on what’s going on here in Manhattan. And by the way, don’t try to figure out what’s going on in Manhattan by reading the New York Times. They have more or less given up on the topic of local news, unless maybe it relates to some avant garde art show.

So consider one of those slices of Manhattan where no one who works for the Times editorial departments has ever ventured, namely the approximately three miles of waterfront on the Lower East Side, from the Manhattan Bridge up to East 14th Street, occupied almost continuously by low income New York City Housing Authority “projects,” totaling about 100 buildings in that stretch. When they put these buildings here in the 1930s through 1970s this was a recently-abandoned shipping area, thought to be of no value — a perfect place to warehouse the poor, out of sight, out of mind.

Then, somewhere along the line, somebody got the idea that a waterfront condo in Manhattan might be a desirable place to live. Over on the Lower West Side, the grand planners had never gotten around to carpet-bombing the place with public housing. By the late 1990s, developers had bought up vacant lots and abandoned warehouses along the waterfront in Greenwich Village and Soho, and then they built some condos that suddenly got top of the line prices. Today, just about every potential site on the Lower West Side has been filled with high-end housing. For the condos, you’ll pay $3000 per square foot and up to live in one of these buildings — and much more for the water view.

Would anyone dare to try a similar thing in the midst of the vast forest of “projects” on the Lower East Side? The pioneer was mega-developer Extell, which got going in 2016 on a very large building called One Manhattan Square just north of the Manhattan Bridge. I covered that undertaking in this April 2017 post, when One Manhattan Square had reached about a third of its eventual height and had just begun to announce prices. Today, One Manhattan Square is finished, and if you want you can buy an apartment there and move in tomorrow. According to its website, you could get a basic 2 bedroom apartment (1123 sq.ft. on a low floor) for just over $2 million; or, if you want one of the nicer 2 bedrooms, maybe on a higher floor or with a water view, it will cost you closer to $3 million.

Needless to say, other developers have noticed this success. Today, there is a second big condo under construction right nearby, and no fewer than three more developments proposed in the immediate vicinity. It looks like this Lower East Side waterfront is really taking off. Probably, you have been reading the exciting research of the trendy Raj Chetty, extensively reported in the New York Times, about how proximity to the wealthy will uplift the poor; and therefore you think that the mainly low-income residents of the low-income NYCHA projects that saturate this area will be thrilled to welcome their new upscale neighbors, from whom they will, by some form of osmosis, learn the elusive secrets of making the big bucks.

Well, not so much. Last week the City Planning Commission held a public hearing on the proposal for the three new towers, and it seems that many in the neighborhood showed up and basically freaked out. There are multiple reports out there on the hearing, but the best one I find appeared on the Curbed New York website on October 17, titled “Locals denounce Two Bridges towers at City Planning hearing.”

Before we get into the substance, you might want to see a rendering of what the proposed construction will look like. From the Curbed New York website:

Five Towers in Two Bridges.jpg

The first tall building there to the right of the Manhattan Bridge is One Manhattan Square, and the second tall building (blue-green) has also begun construction (although it hasn’t gotten very far, and what you see here is a rendering). The next three tall buildings (gray) are the proposed buildings that were the subject of this hearing. The other buildings to the right of the bridge are the beginning of the multi-mile stretch of NYCHA projects, which continue far out of the frame on the right. Behind the bridge are the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, mostly offices, which don’t look so tall here (although many are comparable in height to these new buildings). The new One World Trade Center is the building with the spire just to the left of One Manhattan Square, and is in fact the tallest building in Manhattan.

So what did the locals and their elected representatives have to say about these fancy new buildings? From Curbed:

A trio of skyscrapers slated to rise in the Two Bridges section of the Lower East Side were roundly denounced at a public hearing held at the City Planning Commission on Wednesday. . . . “I’m here today as part of a fight to save a neighborhood,” said [City Council Member Margaret] Chin, kicking off the public testimony portion of the meeting on Wednesday. “Two Bridges has been a low-to-mid-rise haven for New Yorkers of all backgrounds for decades. If approved, these applications would destroy the neighborhood and it would do so without any real public review.”

I like the part about this being a “low-to-mid-rise” neighborhood (no, make that a “haven”). If you look at the picture, you can see that the NYCHA projects are in the range of 15-20 stories tall. That’s what counts as “low-to-mid-rise” here in Manhattan. Continuing:

For nearly seven hours on Wednesday, dozens of residents and members of local community advocacy groups spoke passionately against the skyscrapers and criticized the environmental impact statement saying it ignored several critical features like the lack of public schools in the area; the lack of transit infrastructure beyond the subway and buses; and the long-term effect on rent-regulated apartments in the neighborhood.

Looks like every single person who spoke (other than the developers’ paid advocates) was opposed. What, don’t they read their Pravda? Another good line is the one about “lack of transit infrastructure” in this neighborhood. Actually, there is a stop on the F train (East Broadway) just a few blocks away, about a quarter mile inland. The F train is one of the best subway lines in the country, running 24 hours every day, and going to such places as Herald Square (Macy’s, etc.) and Rockefeller Center, not to mention to many of the trendy areas in Brooklyn and most of the new tech hubs. This neighborhood also has multiple bus lines with schedules that would be unheard-of anywhere in the U.S. outside New York. So what are they even talking about?

I think that the key is buried in that line about the “long-term effect on rent-regulated apartments.” On the face of it, you might think that nearly all of the pre-existing residents of this neighborhood have an iron-clad below-market housing deal locked in for life. Either they live in one of the NYCHA projects, or they live in a rent-regulated apartment. What’s to fear? But actually, I think that they have a point in fearing the new development. The new development makes absolutely obvious what enormous subsidies are being spent to maintain a relatively small number of people in a desirable location at the expense of the rest of the public. Measured by the value of the apartments at One Manhattan Square, someone with a two-bedroom water-facing apartment in one of the NYCHA projects is getting an annual taxpayer subsidy in the range of $50,000 to $100,000. And that’s before considering the billions of dollars in repairs and upgrades that these buildings need to keep them habitable. At some point, it’s almost impossible for no one to notice.