Real Estate Weekly
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Resistant Lower East Side gives way to affordable homes, luxury trimmings

Since the late 1960s, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area in the Lower East Side has been an elusive prize that’s managed to dodge and weave around the trappings of redevelopment.

The area, which was cleared about a half century ago when city officials tore down the tenement houses of nearly 2,000 families, has long been a point of contention between developers and affordable housing advocates.

Earlier this year, both sides won.

Last October, Delancey Street Associates, a joint venture between L+M Development Partners, BFC Partners and Taconic Investment Partners, started construction on the area, which includes about 1,000 housing units (half of the total will be affordable apartments set aside for low, moderate, middle-income households and senior citizens) alongside a “luxury” bowling alley called Splitsville Lanes, a 14-screen Regal Cinemas location, a new location for Essex Street Market and a 150,000 s/f shopping center called the Market Line.

Since then, the development has started to materialize, with a million square feet currently under construction.

Essex Crossing, which will provide about 1.9 million s/f of commercial, residential and community space, will be built in phases. Construction for Phase 1, which includes sites 1, 2, 5 and 6, is ongoing.

The developers recently closed on construction financing for all four sites, the latest of which, Site 6, received a $43 million loan from Wells Fargo Community Investment and the Low Income Investment Fund. Site 6, which is located at Broome Street, will contain a 14-story building with senior housing, a medical center, a senior center and a 2,500 s/f space for coffee shop Think Coffee.

Isaac Henderson
Isaac Henderson

According to Isaac Henderson, a director for L+M Development and the project manager for Essex Crossing, the first phase of the project will produce 540 housing units along with the movie theater and bowling alley, a supermarket, a cultural facility, a public park and between 50,000 to 60,000 s/f of medical office space. He said that he expects all four sites to be completed over the next three years.

Meanwhile, Phase 2, which covers sites 3, 4 and 8, will start in the next 12 to 18 months. The final phase of the project, Phase 3, which includes sites 9 and 10, is expected to be completed between 2018 and 2020.

Delancey Street Associates was awarded the project in September 2013. According to Henderson, one of their initial challenges related to design, for which the city devised specific guidelines.

“One of the requirements of the RFP (Request For Proposals) is that they want no two buildings to be designed by the same architect. The RFP was highly-driven by the community and the task force that came together to develop the guidelines, and one of them really was to have a diversity of architectural styles,” he said.

The four sites under Phase 1 were designed by SHoP Architects (Site 1), Handel Architects (Site 2), Beyer Blinder-Belle (Site 5) and Dattner Architects (Site 6).

According to Henderson, the buildings leverage the “fabric of different architectural styles that link (the Lower East Side) together.”

“I think we consciously picked materials that would play off many of the different styles in the neighborhood,” he said. “Of course, we have a number of masonry buildings, two of the first four buildings are masonry, which is traditional Lower East Side material. So I think we have a number of buildings that reflect that look as well.”

Even if they were allowed to work on the project without directives from the city, Henderson said that Delancey Street Associates would still have installed a subdued design that sticks to the neighborhood’s prevailing design scheme. “The project itself, that’s where it was first headed. We really wanted to have the ability to sort of have its own unique look and feel from each property. It was sort of an important guideline to make sure that there was a diversity of style that is consistent with the Lower East Side itself.ˮ

One of the focal points of the development, the Market Line, will make a run at providing New York City with the feature attraction food hall that some believe it still lacks.

Slated to span 700 feet in length and cover 150,000 s/f, the shopping center combined with Essex Street Market will place one of the top five largest shopping centers in America right on the Lower East Side.

The majority — if not all — of the vendors and eateries present will be local or niche entities as opposed to nationally-known, big box brands. The public market will also include non-food retail vendors.

In spite of the neighborhood amenities that it promises, Essex Crossing has received some pushback from advocacy groups, community boards and public officials.

Months before Delancey Street Associates started construction in the area, a coalition of affordable housing advocates and labor groups slept outside the property in protest of the growing number of homeless people in the city.

Council Member Margaret Chin also called on Essex Crossing developers to use union labor for the project.

On the community level, one of the main concerns has been overcrowding, something that Henderson downplayed. He claims that the site has been bare for years and that the construction of new structures is overdue.

“One thing in the Lower East Side is that there has not been any new development in the last six or seven years. So basically, new projects like this, still, compared to other neighborhoods, there’s a lot of undersupply there. We’re building on primarily a parking lot that’s been underutilized for the last 40 years. There’s a huge need for quality housing on the Lower East Side,” he said.

It is this kind of resistance within the community that makes Essex Crossing very rare.

Joe Berko, the founder and president of real estate advisory firm Berko and Associates, said that Essex Crossing is unlikely to trigger a wave of development in the area.

He expects the project to be a one-off, even for similar projects on a smaller scale, because of the community’s skittish attitude towards development.

“The community doesn’t want it… The zoning would simply not allow it. They have a very active community board,” he said.

“I don’t expect any bigger scale development in the Lower East Side because you have segregation of many small property owners and it’s tough to assemble anything in a significant scale. So it’s probably going to be one of the last mega-projects in Lower Manhattan.”

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