Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Back tenements

Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, has posted a wonderful piece about back tenements on the GVSHP blog. There are a lot of these back houses throughout the LES, from the EV all the way to Chinatown. You can view a couple on the corner of 13th Street & Avenue B, where the corner building was cleared and replaced with a community garden, so you can look into the interior of the block, unobstructed. Right there in front of you you'll see a row of back tenements.  It was common practice to build a front tenement about 50' deep (the depth of a row house or townhouse of the day) leaving about 50' of unused back yard. To maximize the rental space, the owner would build a second structure behind the front tenement. 

Why the original owners didn't build one deeper structure, rather than two shallower ones, is, as Mr. Berman points out, the great mystery. If the back tenements were built later, there would be no mystery: the owner built the front structure on the current model of row house coverage, then as the market for housing grew, simply built a second structure rather than the more immediately expensive effort of demolish-and-build-larger. But, as Andrew also points out, many of these back tenements seem to have been built simultaneously with the front tenement. Why build two structures when one structure would have saved one stairwell and maximized the rental space? After all, tenements were built solely for rental profit.

Absent a memoir of an 1850 property owner, one can only speculate. Two considerations over the years have occurred to me: the shallow row house allows front-to-rear window ventilation; deeper structures would have required new and challenging design. As we know, when interior subdivisions without windows appeared, the city had to respond with the 1867 Tenement House Act specifically including a window in every room.

So it's my guess that owners built on the rational, shallow model that allowed rational window inclusion and ventilation. It was only when the housing market stepped up after the Civil War that owners viewed the extra stairwell as a serious economic liability, especially for single-lot owners who were stuck with only one space to maximize. Money is the father of invention: owners figured out a design to eliminate the second stairwell and the second entry and maximized the lot coverage for maximal rent.

So I view the back house as a holdover from row house design. That design made sense; it worked well enough; why change it -- why sacrifice rational ventilation just to save a little stairwell space? Only when the market upped the profit potential did the two-structure begin to look inadequate and the old methods were rethought. Until then, the back house had been a marriage of rationality and complacence.

But that's just one guess to file in the drawer of idle historical speculations on NYC architecture, social history and its interaction with the real estate economy and development practice. Mr. Berman speculates in his post, "Perhaps the conventional expectation that these still-relatively rare (and generally looked down upon) structures would at least look like a house pushed builders to use this two-building form...". I suspect there's a lot of truth to that speculation as well. It's difficult to break social conventions of acceptability, whether in development or fashion or human behavior.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bizarro New York City

Remember Superman comics' Bizarro world where everything is backwards? Well, I visited Bizarro New York City a couple of days ago. Here's what I saw:

The police are the criminals. They commit crime everyday as part of what they consider their job duties.
Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Instead of arresting those criminals, the police support criminality; they gather in big protests to demand more criminality.
 Viorel Florescu
When Bizarro police see law-abiding citizens, protected by law, they promptly beat them and arrest them.
Bizarro mayor, concerned about the health and sanitation of these law-abiding citizens who live outside, confiscates their heat generators the day before a predicted snowstorm, so the citizens, for their own benefit, will freeze and disappear.
Lucas Jackson:Reuters
Bizarro mayor, elected by the people, sits in a mansion holding posh galas for the wealthy 1%.
The people of Bizarro New York City, who elected him, sit in a park, unemployed, homeless and cold.
Bizarro mainstream media don't inform the people, they try to deceive and divert them, which seems kind of pointless, since the people already know the truth. Bizarro.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The coming war over Tompkins Square Park

It'll be middle-class parents against the homeless, indigents & winos. All over a rodent. The winner? Guess.

The outcry on EVGrieve's comment box against Occupy Tompkins Square Park is only the latest sign of a gathering battle over turf that will likely gentrify the park beyond recognition. It is coming in increments, and the first struggle will likely play out over the rats.

The parents who use the Avenue A playground have organized to rid the park of rats. Sounds harmless -- no one likes rats, and there sure are a lot of them throughout the park and particularly near that playground.

But there's a problem with rat control. Rats reproduce really fast, so killing rats doesn't make a dent, unless every last rat is dead and no outside rats move in. There are only two ways to control rats effectively. One way is removing their food source. If you do that, you'll see at first the overpopulated community eating everything in sight, then eating their own new litters of young, and finally, a reduced population.

But how to limit their food source? Well, one way is to remove the soup kitchens around the park. The kitchens create a steady flow of discarded food on the lawns and over the garbage lids. But remove the soup kitchens, you remove their clients, an entire demographic in the south west corner of the park. The resolution of the rat problem will lead to a cultural and ethnic cleansing of the park, leaving it to the yuppies and the middle-class families in the park.

For now, the city administration wants to keep the local indigent population on site in the park. They are easy to observe and control in the park. Equally important, there are many social services that can minister to them conveniently in one place. So for now the city supports the soup kitchens in and around the park. But parents are adamant, narrow in their interest, focused, active and communal -- they network effectively and regularly and give each other mutual encouragement. If they don't see results to their satisfaction, they will press their interests until they win, regardless who is hurt. Parents don't mess around, especially parents with a sense of entitlement. 

The local indigents are not organized, they have no clout, and they have no support beyond themselves and the missions, which have their own institutional commitments in their relations to city administration. In other words, the locals at the southwest corner are at risk. And you know where it will end.

The other way to control rats is introducing feral cats to drive the rats off their turf. This was effective for many years prior to gentrification on my street, when we accepted cat waste on the steps as the price to pay for a rat-free building and street. But park users will object to the cat waste on the lawns, and neighbors around the park would lose sleep to their high-pitched cat-screeching. Feral cats are an effective solution, but it'll never happen in the park. 

I didn't like having rats in my apartment, when about ten years ago gentrification spurred my landlord to turn the basement into apartments and drove the rats there up into the rest of the building. But I don't have any trouble with the rats in the park. I see them every night by the parkour course and handball courts. I don't bother them, and they don't bother me.

For my part, I'd rather have either rats or cats in the park than the parents: the parents are dangerous to humans.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

OWS Disturbs the EV Comfort Zone

A Voice reporter contacted me to ask me about the neighborhood comments on Penley's Occupy Tompkins Square Park at EVGrieve's blog, and what it means for the EV. I won't bother to rehearse the lamentable loss of historical memory over the illustrious history of TSP protests from the 1850's to the 1990's and their significance. What I find particularly telling is that the comments appeared on Grieve. Who reads and comments on Grieve now, and why? Here's my personal, angry take on them (disclaimer: none of this applies to the many thinking, socially aware newcomers to the EV) --

This new breed of Lower East Sider comes to enjoy a sense of urban authenticity in Manhattan. Of course, it's not authentic at all, but a kind of faux authenticity, pretend authenticity: the EV feels like it's hip, it imagines itself to be hip, it has lots of youth who style themselves as hip, but in reality, they are just children of wealth seeking $700 a month more hipness and urban pretend-authenticity than they would get in Queens. It's that measured thrill (the oxymoron is intended) they seek -- just enough for them to congratulate themselves for not living in a forgettable neighborhood like Kips Bay, but not too much to lose sleep over the noise of a late-night drum circle.

The mere suggestion of being arrested for a principle of justice arouses such unconscious fear that they respond with political condescension and smug personal disdain. Note how they fail to understand the OWS movement itself: they attribute to it whatever they disagree with, so that, conveniently, they can dismiss it, don't have to be bothered with it and don't have to confront its potential. It is, if you forgive another oxymoron, aggressive apathy. Call it proactive apathy, to use one of the redundant and useless epithets of their generation.

They read Grieve because reading some local foodie restaurant blog would show themselves in their mirror as exactly themselves, mere gentrifiers -- but Grieve is cool, Grieve is hip, Grieve is an insider, so they can feel insiders without ever getting inside anything in this place. That's who reads Grieve today. Bob Arihood died just in time. He'd have seen it as every good deed's punishment. Grieve has, no fault of his own, become the entertainment for the gawkers of authenticity. 

Grieve's readers consider themselves East Village old-timers if they've lived here for six years, long since gentrification settled in. They have no conception of the meaning of this once unique place, not a clue. It is beyond their capacity to imagine, let alone understand. They have lived all their lives with property values and social control. They have no sense of the freedom that follows property abandonment and its vacation of all ownership control, often described as anarchy. They are the children of entitlement. The great difference between the trustfund babies of the EV and the overeducated campers in Liberty Plaza is that the latter are unemployed and drowning in student-loan debt, while the former enjoy mixology at Death & Co.

The campers have been successful at keeping momentum and visibility by holding new events each day or so. The occupation of TSP sounds like a useful part of that program. I don't see it as unduly disruptive. If OWS has the potential to shift the balance of politics in this country, issues of local noise, garbage and crowding hardly seem worth mentioning in the broad narrative arc of history. Maybe we have become too accustomed to complaining about bars. But, seriously, barflies are not making history; they're just making noise. I mean, here is an opportunity to change the voice and profile of our polity, and the news media and the local residents are worried about noise? What happened to these poor rich people's values? What kind of sorry excuse are they for humanity? Are they so comfortable and jaded that they can't care about anything but their own comfort? Is this neighborhood truly no more to them than the latest ice cream parlor tasting? Is this what the LES has come to?

OWS has stepped into the muddy stream of American democracy, pronounced it a river of shit, which it is, and have called for a dam: enough. They have pointed to the naked emperor -- the wide disparity in both our politics and economy. They have as yet no program, no solution except the goal of obtaining a more equitable distribution of democratic power. They are not exculpating Obama by targeting Wall Street. They are not supporting any party. Unlike the Tea Party which began as an knee-jerk revolt against the color of the president, finding its libertarian justification after the fact to legitimize its acid racism, OWS started with principles. You can tell the difference by their resistance to any political party, while the Tea Party jumped quickly into Republican habit. Theirs was never anything but partisanship. OWS is, as many have suggested, something new. It's not a demonstration; it's not a third party. It's a social movement focused on the failure of American democracy itself.
I have no expectations, nor any predictions for its success, but I am not so ironic as to view every honest effort as naive, silly, childish or risible. Irony is the privilege of the abstract, the distant, the uninvolved. It suits the comfortable, the secure, those who can afford to be indifferent. If we all regarded our political process with irony only, there'd be no place for democracy at all. The OWS process is all about participatory democracy. It is so pure and purged of irony that its principled participation cannot close on its demands. That's one reason why it hasn't gotten involved with any party or against any party, why it hasn't projected any specific solutions. It is a movement discontented with our democracy. 
The only campaign poster I've seen at Liberty Plaza is for Ron Paul. Now, several of Grieve's commenters seemed to think that OWS should attack gov't rather than Wall Street. Well, that's Paul's message, and it's there at OWS, along with many other messages. You won't see any Obama posters there, that's for sure. So I think the commenters, as most ugly commenters are, uninformed, biased loudmouths. The content of their comments are of little merit but of revelatory sociological curiosity. Look at who they are, or what they are. I take them very seriously, but not what they think, if they think. It looks to me more like avoidance, complacency and self-congratulations than thought. And it's all so close to the sentiment summed up in Let them eat cake.

Le yuppie

Trustfund-baby hispter wannabe

Hope for Bialystoker Home for the Aged and its residents

 Photo: Julia Manzerova

A new group has formed to save the Bialystoker Home for the Aged, which is slated for closing, eventual demolition, and the displacement of its aged residents, scattering them to distant and unfamiliar neighborhoods as a result of one of the shadiest deals in the LES. Hoping to save the building and prevent dispersal, Friends of Bialystoker Home has applied to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for designation. Landmark designation would end all plans to demolish and would obviate the Board's need to vacate the residents in the home.

The building itself is an art deco inspiration, integrating futuristic modernism with Jewish history. If you are at all susceptible to the romantic idealism of the art deco movement, its bold reinvention of all images and designs shedding classical traditions for the experimental, the medieval and the mythical, on the one hand, and on the other its aspirations for a utopian, amalgamated new-world-without-class, then you'll appreciate the Bialystoker.

The Friends are asking LESers to write to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, cc to Councilmember Chin (an opportunity for her to heal the wounds with the preservation community) urging the LPC chair to designate the structure as a city landmark.

Here's historian Joyce Mendelsohn, with details of where to send below:

Friends of the Bialystoker Home is a new group organizing a campaign for landmark designation of this important building constructed between 1929-31 to house the largest and most prominent of all the “landsmanschaftn” (mutual aid societies) on the Lower East Side.  The building survives as a major visual element on East Broadway symbolizing and recalling the Jewish history of the Lower East Side.  Designed in the Art Deco style with a golden brick fa├žade, the ten-story structure features a unique arched entrance framed by twelve medallions representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  [The Bialystoker Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing (formerly the Bialystoker Home for the Aged) is located at 228 East Broadway at Clinton Street.]
We need your support in our drive for landmark designation of this irreplaceable structure.  Please contact the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to urge them to calendar the Bialystoker Center as a first step in the process of landmark designation.  Time is of the essence, since it has been reported that the building is currently up for sale and the Bialystoker Board intends to vacate the Center by the end of October.
Send your letter to:
Hon. Robert B. Tierney, Chair                                                                                                         
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission                              

One Centre Street, 9th floor north                                                                                                     
New York, N.Y. 10007 OR e-mail:                              

Please copy all written messages  and Council Member Margaret Chin:

Photo: LuciaM

Monday, October 10, 2011

The relevance of the Bowery, the dishonesty of the NYTimes

The Times, reporting on efforts to preserve the Bowery, quotes Arun Bhati, the developer who demolished 35 Cooper Square, the 1825 townhouse, "Not all in this neighborhood are looking to preserve the past. Cities need to grow and make some changes to be relevant.”

Quite right, some just want to get rich on the destruction of history and character of New York. In quoting him, the NYTimes carefully hides the fact that he demolished a historical townhouse. Here's the full passage:

“Not all in this neighborhood are looking to preserve the past,” said Arun Bhati, a developer who owns a vacant lot at 35 Cooper Square, where an 1825 Federal house built by a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant was torn down this year, despite protests from preservationists. “Cities need to grow and make some changes to be relevant.”

Note the passive voice, "was torn down this year," not mentioning that Bhati himself tore it down turning it into that vacant lot he now owns.

To assess his quote, the reader needs to know that he demolished it himself for himself, not for the relevance of the city. Was he overwhelmed with petitions to "please demolish this 1825 townhouse so New York will be relevant"? Commercial developers demolish buildings with no regard for the relevance of the city, for its past or its future. The comment about relevance is a post factum excuse to pour perfume over his waste. He demolished the building for himself.

Meanwhile, the NYTimes turns him into a spokesperson for "the relevance of the city" by hiding his personal financial interest. Is this journalism, objective reporting, accuracy, information? It's journalistic fraud, and plain deceit. That's the New York Times I know. It's the Times acting as lickspittle for a developer. If you didn't already know this about the Times, now you do.

Am I the only person disgusted by it?
Compare the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors. They have no financial interest in the Bowery whatsoever. They want to preserve the Bowery because they know the history, appreciate it, and they love their New York. Even if you don't share their principles, you can't but recognize that their position is a principled position beyond any personal gain. It's not a self-serving motive, and they are not trying to hide their motives with lies and BS.

Which comes to my point. The neighborhood is now drawing people like Mr. Bhati, people who are there to prey upon the neighborhood for their personal, selfish gain, not for the benefit of anyone or anything else, relevant or irrelevant. They are there for themselves. They are not there to save the relevance of the city and certainly not for its history or its long-term commercial viability or its future. They are there for a fast buck today. What happens tomorrow? What do they care?

Same for the First American International Bank about to demolish 135 Bowery. In that case, the bank led Councilmember Chin by the nose who didn't even try to find a better deal for their air rights. This was a marriage of convenience -- for the bank, not for the neighborhood or for affordability. She could have gotten much more affordable spaces with the air rights shifted onto Chrystie Street if she exercised her vision, did her own work instead of doing the bank's work. Such a blatant case of the bank leading the elected official. This one belongs on a poster in Occupy Wall Street's Liberty Plaza. It's exemplary. That's relevant.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

no words

bob arihood is gone.
his incomparable blog

Friday, September 23, 2011

The personal is the political

When I first saw this short film, I wondered if I too would end a relationship over differences of opinion about overdevelopment. Probably. Anyway, this filmmaker has made overdevelopment and gentrification as personal as it will ever get.

I'm not sure why he cast a guy in the role of hero and his erstwhile girlfriend as villain, but I'm guessing it was just easier for him to identify with the situation than if the gender roles had been reversed. It is, after all, a personal short, first person, self-narrated. But that poor girl really gets read for trash.

I'll bet the ex would think it's a sentimental expansion on Chase Manhattan Master Card commercials. Well, those ad folks create beautiful stuff, as here, but here it's not whoring for money, just serving beauty and truth. Now it's got me sentimental.

If you watch, wait til you get to the images accompanying Whitman. It's beautiful New York, in black & white. If you like Ric Burns, enjoy. To object to beauty for its familiarity or sentiment is to allow cynicism too far a rein. Anyway, I'm a sucker for black & white.

Phil Vasquez' Song of Relations
10 minutes

Friday, September 16, 2011

135 Bowery: going, going, GONE! -- to the lowest bid

Yesterday the City Council Landmarks subcommittee voted to deny legal landmark status to an 1817 townhouse on the Bowery, deferring to the local councilmember, Margaret Chin, who says the owner, First American International Bank, will provide a little affordable business space if he's allowed to demolish it and redevelop the site into a new seven-story building.

But Chin didn't get a written agreement from the owner or a community benefits agreement, and she didn't research the surrounding sites, particularly the ones on Chrystie Street, where the landmark's air rights could have produced much more affordable space than in situ on the Bowery and without destroying a historical site.

The councilmember didn't do her homework to find and secure the best deal. Instead, she took the first offer of the owner, without obtaining any guarantee that the community will get anything. We're in a recession. In a moment of trouble, the bank might flip the site to someone else. How long will the affordable business space remain affordable? She can't tell us.

Merely having a good relationship with a supportive bank (for the creation of future affordable housing, e.g.) is not enough for process and accountability. Now she'll never know what opportunities were lost. But we know what we'll lose -- yet another piece of the historical Bowery. The Bowery is a hot property right now. The new building will further raise the real estate values of the entire strip. We can see where this is going. She needs to raise the bar on her land use staff. A lot more work could have been done.

Chin has a long and distinguished career as a local affordable housing activist. But as councilmember, so far she's succeeded with this bank's development and with the BID, which happens to be promoted prominently by the same bank. Both accomplishments benefit business and development. Many, perhaps most, business owners in Chinatown don't actually live there or even have their headquarters there, so any indirect benefits for residents remain to be seen -- and indirect harm or secondary displacement also remain to be seen. This affair will tarnish her within her own neighborhood. That's a shame. It was unnecessary: all she needed was the homework.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fast and furious

St. Mark's Bookstore may close, and 135 Bowery, a historic landmark, may be demolished (more below).

Petition to save St. Mark's Bookstore. The owners negotiate their rent tomorrow, Wednesday.

Petition to save 135 Bowery. To testify or attend the hearing: Thur., Sept. 15 at 11am at 250 Broadway, 16th floor conference room. Agenda:|&Search=
Why is another landmark on the Bowery being threatened with demolition? 135 Bowery is a townhouse from around 1817, one of the oldest in New York. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has already designated it as a historical landmark. But the local councilmember, Margaret Chin, has reversed her support for the landmark on the grounds that the owner, a bank, wants to replace it with a taller structure promising a bit of affordable commercial space. Without the councilmember's support, the City Council will likely not vote the designation into protective law.

The bank that owns 135 Bowery hasn't submitted its affordable intention in writing. The bank hasn't shown any affordable rent rates; the bank hasn't produced any legally binding contract for this promised affordable commercial space or any indication how long the leases would remain affordable, or even any binding document whatsoever showing their intent. All we have is the word of the bank. (What do you think that's worth?)

I would be happy to see, for example, an SRO hotel on the Bowery for recent immigrants to live in cheap but safe quarters. But I would be a great fool if I sacrificed a historic site for an SRO promised to me by a bank without any documentation or plan or legally binding contract or even any detailed information.

So I wonder who is being fleeced by this bank? Is the Councilmember being fleeced? Or is it the public?

I will testify at the Council hearing on behalf of 135 Bowery, because I know that the owner-bank, far from intending to give back to the community, wants to get the most out of his investment regardless of the community, history, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the City Council, the Councilmember, or anyone but themselves. They've made no commitment, let's be real. The only commitment has been verbal to the Councilmember, and we don't have a binding document of that discussion.

The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors say they want to fill the chamber with support. They also ask for more signatures on their petition.  The 135 Bowery petition again.

St. Mark's Bookstore
The great used bookstores of New York, with their overstuffed chairs, chatty patrons and patiently listening bookdealers, were places to hang and enjoy, not just for browse-and-buy. The ones in this neighborhood were truly worth saving, and they are all truly gone. Should St. Mark's Bookstore be saved?

I have made my peace with the twenty-somethings that are the present and future of this neighborhood. For better or worse, like it or not, they have transformed this place in their own image and it now belongs to them, from their dorms to our tenements to their BMW Lab. But the young are mostly transient, so they are mostly unequipped to restrain the powerful market force they themselves have brought here. Yes, they want nightlife, but they probably would also like to have a good bookstore, and the monster real estate market they've fed now won't allow it. It's about to swallow up the bookstore and leave, well, you know the story.

Cooper Union owns the site of the St. Mark's Bookstore, one of the few interesting bookstores in town. CU is raising its rent beyond the store's capacity to pay. CU, of course, can afford to give back to the community. Peter Cooper himself was all about giving back to the community. Peter must have long ago tired of spinning in his grave over what has become of his life's dream, free higher education for the working class. How many ways can Cooper Union spell "betrayal"? Surely they're not hurting for this little commercial space: they own the land on which the Chrysler building stands and the glass building on Astor Place. Seems to me they ought to buy up shares of the store and expand it as a university-community bookstore. But they'd probably betray that as well.

Frankly, I'm not convinced this neighborhood deserves to have a great bookstore. The NYU students have their own bookstore, filled with all the books they need and more than they can handle. As for the rest of the neighborhood, this place is a youth destination for children of means, not an intellectual or countercultural destination anymore. Its heart is commerce now, not anarchy. Freedom must be purchased, and it exacts many prices.

Maybe saving St. Mark's Bookstore is an exercise in anachronism or sentimental nostalgia. But if you'd like to try to preserve St. Mark's Bookstore for the benefit of the future transient youth of this neighborhood, here's a petition for you.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Memorial for Janet Freeman May 22

Janet Freeman was the salt of the earth, the New York salt, from way, way deep in the mine.

From CoDA:

We are saddened to tell you of the death of Janet Freeman, on April 29. Janet was a long time member of Coda, a passionate, tireless and effective community activist, especially on housing issues, and an unforgettable friend. Many of us probably think of her as a truly pure and uncorruptible Lower East Sider. A Memorial Service, arranged by Janet's sister Pixie, and her close friend Enid, will be held on Sunday, May 22, at the Chinatown Head Start School (which Janet was closely involved with), 180 Mott Street, at 2:00. All of you are invited.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Once more with feeling

Rent deregulation, believe it or not, raises market rate rents. The conservative Manhattan Institute, in their study of deregulation in Boston, showed that, following deregulation, landlords invested in improvements to attract market-rate renters. Landlords always seek their highest rent that the renter is willing to pay. Where there is any competition, the result of deregulation is better quality housing but higher market rents.

Market rates only go down if demand goes down -- if people leave the city or excess housing is built. Rent regulation in NY doesn't hinder construction -- new units are typically unregulated anyway. And the city's population increases, not decreases. It's not even certain that in a tight market like NY, landlords would even invest widely in improvements.

Regulated rents actually help to depress market rates, although renters who pay exorbitant rents wish it weren't so. We'd all like to be able to blame the regulated renters because it seems so unfair. But the source of exorbitant rents is not regulation, but the profit motive of landlords and NYers' own desire to live here -- we are the market that sustains those rents.

The market value depends on three general factors: demand, supply, and the aggregate available funds for rents. If regulated renters are paying less than their available rent funds (the excess of which presumably goes into the goods and services economy), when they are forced to pay more, they will increase the aggregate funds available for rents, since most of those renters are tied to the metropolitan area by work or family. Once deregulated, they will raise rents wherever they go in the area and that trickles up to the luxury rents.

Paul Krugman some years ago blamed regulation on San Francisco's tight rental market. He was clearly unaware that inclusionary housing was mandated in San Francisco, hindering construction. Krugman admits in his article that his judgment was cursory and immediate and not a result of any investigation. Had he known that inclusionary housing was mandated there, he would no doubt have come to a very different conclusion.

Inclusionary housing is not mandatory in NYC. I hasten to add that mandatory inclusionary housing in a super-high market like NYC would probably not unduly hinder construction.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rent regulations good for New Yorkers?

Market-rate renters in New York complain that they pay exorbitant rents because their regulated neighbors underpay. In their justifiable anger, they imagine that if regulated neighbors paid more, market rates would ease down.

Unfortunately, markets depend not on cost, but on demand. When an entire neighborhood destabilizes and goes market rate, demand actually increases. Market rates increase. All rents go up.

Rent deregulation doesn't lower market rates with a housing flood, it just displaces a whole lot of long-time community residents, upscaling the neighborhood and spreading present and future transiency. Renters also lose their legal protections against landlords and landlord harassment, which also adds transiency. Deregulation is the landlord's wet dream. Landlords get all the cards, renters none.

It's been studied by no less a deregulation advocate than the conservative Manhattan Institute, summarized here. The study itself here.

More regulation means less investment, not higher market rents. Real estate disinvestment in NY? Not likely. Not a worry. Increased investment raising rents? That's a true worry for anyone who isn't in real estate.

Want to save communities and affordability for all New Yorkers? Tell the governor to include stronger rent regulations in the state budget. You can call his office at 212-681-4580

When a city deregulates, the aggregate money available for rent actually increases. Those who were underpaying now will pay more they were paying with few exceptions. If they squeeze into lower-income neighborhoods, they raise rents there. Meanwhile, those who now see an opportunity to live in tonier neighborhoods, pay up the exorbitant market rates, which keeps the market rate rents up. The aggregate demand increases all over the city, unless people stop liking the city and leave. When the aggregate money for rent increases, rents increase, as long as people stay in the city. Why do you think landlords so much want to deregulate the market? To ease your market rate rents? Wake up!

The future of Chinatown?

Detailed account of what's happening in Chinatown from Roland Li of Real Estate Weekly.

Lots of perspectives included, but Jones' comment about affordable housing advocates being against commercial incubators requires unpacking. On the one hand, her "commerce" is a misleading euphemism for development. Anti-gentrificationists in Chinatown do not oppose all commerce, they oppose the out-of-scale development that will transform and gentrify Chinatown, displacing the current community. On the other hand, affordable housing advocates are not at all opposed to development: they are the most enthusiastic proponents of development in Chinatown, aside from the developers themselves. Cross subsidies for market-rate development provide the only means of new affordable housing units. That's the debate in a nutshell. Wisest comment: CWG chair Mae Lee.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Momentous vote last night

A momentous vote last night at Community Board 3: they voted, in effect, to curb the trend of commercial real estate speculation that has been decimating local-serving businesses and speeding up yuppie gentrification, which, unlike family-gentrification, creates neighborhoods of upscale transients displacing community without replacing any community at all. CB3 voted to phase out automatic liquor license transfer approval. It may be the most significant policy vote they've ever made.

Under the old dispensation, when a bar owner decides to sell the business, a new owner of that business can 'buy' the liquor license. The CB, treating the bought license as if there were no change in management, effectively guarantees the financial value of the license. That sends a message to prospective bar owners everywhere that a license is guaranteed -- insured -- in this community district. You don't have to face the community, you don't have to face the Board members. If the street on that business has over time filled with new bars, you don't have to worry about increased community objections. You are guaranteed, as long as you don't violate the law by selling to minors or sell cocaine there (sorry, I mean get caught selling cocaine) or, say, murder the residents above you.

Of course, bar owners on the CB lobbied for automatic transfer so that they could sell their licenses at the highest value to new owners. It was a kind of municipal corruption: the CB would insure the value of the license against change in the community, in particular, against the proliferation of local bars. The State Liquor Authority recognizes that bar density (defined as more that three within a 500 foot radius) is a reason to deny a new license, if the bar can't demonstrate some public benefit. So guaranteeing transfer approval was a way for the bar owners to get CB approval despite greater density.

You can see the effects in our neighborhood. The 500-foot rule is flouted all over the EV/LES. And because bars can pay higher rents than most businesses, this bar program has choked out local-serving small businesses in favor of non-local-serving trendy bars. The bars in turn bring a transient young, single, professional clientele to the local residential stock. They gentrify the neighborhood, raising local rents; gentrification in turn encourages landlords to harass older, stable, more long-term lower-rent tenants, and the new upscale transients don't create any new community of their own.

The CB vote last night will eventually pull back that trend. If prospective bar owners know that they must face the community to get license approval, they will be less likely to buy that business, especially here in areas of bar density, where there will be the most community objection. If bars are reluctant, landlords can't count on high-rent bars for their commercial spaces, and will have to settle for lower-rent businesses. That will lower commercial rents and bring commercial diversity.

The next battle is to prevent chain stores and banks from filling in the place of the bars. That's a difficult struggle, though not impossible: special zoning can limit types of commerce, though with chain stores it can be tricky.

One note: the vote last night was a compromise. The policy doesn't apply to current bar owners. Their licenses will be guaranteed for their sale (as long as they don't violate the law). It's only the new buyers who will not have that guarantee. In other words, the bar owners on the Community Board will be protected, insured and underwritten. Such is the virtue of being a community board member. Makes me almost want to become a CB member so they can guarantee my personal rent against any local raises.

Monday, February 21, 2011

More on the Bowery

Candlelight vigil for 35 Cooper Square
Tuesday, Feb. 22 from 5:30 to 6:30pm
(btwn 5th & 6th Streets where the Bowery meets 3rd Avenue)

Bowery History exhibit at the Whole Foods at Houston Street & the Bowery
on the 2nd floor free public space, Chrystie side

On The Bowery
Lionel Rogosin's 1957 groundbreaking documentary/drama
"Rogosin is probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." - John Cassavetes
Back again for a third engagement at IFC
Fri, Sat, Sun 11am


The Bowery: a history of Grit, Graft and Grandeur
Eric Ferrara's latest book with new and surprising research and many archival illustrations
at Amazon

Monday, January 24, 2011

Save 35 Cooper petition

From the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors

The information below explains why
several community and preservation groups
are having a press conference & rally to
support landmarking 35 Cooper Square .
Also, please sign the petition:
"Designate 35 Cooper Square a NYC landmark"

Designate 35 Cooper Square a NYC Landmark!

Event: Press Conference & Rally
Date: Jan 28 (Friday) at 4:30
Place: 35 Cooper Square (btwn 6th & 5th St .)
Participants: Historic Districts Council,
Greenwich Village Society for Historic
Preservation, Lower East Side Preservation
Initiative, Bowery Alliance of Neighbors,
Two Bridges Neighborhood Council,
East Village Community Coalition,
East Fifth Street Block Association,
6th and 7th Street Block Association...

Tell the Landmarks Preservation Commission to:

Landmark 35 Cooper Square !

The oldest building on Cooper Square , and one of the oldest
buildings of the original Bowery, this charming Federal style
building with the traditional gambrel roof, twin-pedimented
dormers, and large end chimneys also boasts historical and
cultural associations ranging from a direct descendant of
Peter Stuyvesant to much later habitation by Diane DiPrima,
the most influential woman of the Beat Generation.

“…when I first laid eyes on 35 Cooper Square , I knew it was
the fulfillment of all those fantasies of art and the artist’s life,
la vie de boheme. . .it was my dream house.”
--Diane DiPrima, Memoirs of a Beatnik

This much-beloved little building has been both a significant
participant and a surviving witness to New York City history
for nearly 200 years! Under the stipulations of the
Landmarks Law, it qualifies on architectural, historical and
cultural criteria for designation as a NYC individual landmark.
For both historical and cultural reasons, losing this house would be a
significant loss for the East Village/Lower East Side.

Why the need for a rally and press conference?
Responding late last year to rumors that 35 Cooper might
soon be demolished, four community preservation groups
(Historic Districts Council, Greenwich Village Society
for Historic Preservation, Lower East Side Preservation
Initiative) jointly wrote to the Landmarks Preservation
Commission Chair Tierney urging a NYC landmarks
designation. Accompanying our appeal was a strong
support letter from City Council Member Rosie Mendez,
who also met on site with Mr. Tierney.
Despite our efforts, we were denied even a public
hearing on the issue. The stated rationale was that
the building’s facade has undergone too much
alteration, but as historian Joyce Mendelsohn points
out in her reasonable, well-researched response,
many Federal style buildings have been
landmarked despite significant alterations.
She points out that when the much altered 511 and 513
Grand Street were designated, Mr. Tierney stated that
“These Federal-style treasures recall an important period
of New York city ’s development,” an argument that
Mendelsohn rightly suggests may appropriately be
applied to 35 Cooper Square .

Needless to say, under the circumstances a press conference and
and rally are the logical, democratic response in defense of
such an important historical resource.

Please sign the online PETITION:
Designate 35 Cooper Square a NYC Landmark!

Photographs of 35 Cooper Square and information about
our other efforts to preserve, protect, and celebrate the
Bowery and Cooper Square are available at:

David Mulkins, Chair/Co-founder
Bowery Alliance of Neighbors
184 Bowery, #4
New York, NY 10012

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Rally & press conference to save one of the most historic buildings on the Bowery

From the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors:

35 Cooper Square Press Conference and Rally

Friday, 1/28

4:30 p.m.
35 Cooper Square

There will be a rally and press conference in front of 35 Cooper Square to save this wonderful Federal-style house from demolition and to push for landmark designation. It is one of the oldest houses left on the Bowery. In addition to its architectural significance, its important historical and cultural associations range from a direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant to the building's much later habitation by Diane DiPrima, the most influential woman of the Beat Generation. This much-beloved little building has been both a significant participant and a surviving witness to New York City history for 200 years! Under the stipulations of the Landmarks Law, it qualifies on architectural, historical and cultural criteria for designation as a NYC individual landmark. Losing this house would be a significant loss to the history of the East Village for both cultural and historical reasons.

Read more about the rich history of 35 Cooper Square here at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. Plans for demolition here (link via EVGrieve).


Monday, January 10, 2011

Express support for affordable housing in Manhattan

Tuesday Jan. 11 is the deadline for community comment submissions (send to on SPURA -- the largest vacant land area south of 96th Street -- a rare opportunity for the creation of affordable housing, and a part of Bloomberg's plan to create or preserve 165,000 affordable units, including 60,000 new units to be created. How many of these 60,000 new units SPURA will contribute depends in part on what our community says.

CB3 is currently working towards a plan of 800 affordable units, and a total residential ratio of 50% market-rate to 50% non-market-rate. The non-market-rate housing will comprise

20% low-income housing,
20% moderate (<$100,000 income) & middle income (<$130,000 income) housing, and
10% senior housing.

In other words, the CB plan, if built, would result in at least 1,600 residential units, about the size of one EV block of six story tenements.

Whether the city will respect the community agreement is an open question. Look at what happened to Atlantic Yards. SPURA stands in Sheldon Silver's district, and he has not yet commented.

The city, however, seems strongly committed: the city needs the revenue from the sale of the land, the residential and commercial taxes and residential disposable income that development will bring, as well as add to the legacy of the mayor, who has made affordable housing a goal. But before the city can move forward, it needs an agreement from the CB, as a first step. So now is the moment to express support for affordable housing in Manhattan.

View the current CB3 plan so far at CB3's website.
Send your comments to