On the last sunny Saturday of October the Cornell AAP NYC Masters of Regional Planning students went on an extensive walking tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Though it encompasses a small geographic area, the Lower East Side represents an incredibly diverse range of land uses and building typologies. From tenements to towers in the park, the building stock ranges more than two centuries.
The tour kicked-off at Essex Street Market on the northeast corner of Essex Street and Delancey Street. Just inside the market entrance we met Jacob Dugopolski of WXY Studios and Bob Balder, the E.D. of AAP NYC. We kicked things up by fueling ourselves with coffee and fruit purchased at the market – and simultaneously learned about the history of the space from Bob. Built in the 1930s under the direction of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947), the market was originally intended to bring order to the chaotic tenement streets of the Lower East Side.
The belief of the administration was that by creating a formal city-controlled indoor space, order would be brought to the street hawkers and pushcart vendors. At the time, the Essex Street Market was just one among a network of such facilities created across the city. For the past seventy plus years this high ceiling-ed concrete structure housed food vendors and served as an indoor community gathering space. In the last ten years, even in the context of rapid neighborhood gentrification, the market continues to serve as a meeting point for the Lower East Side’s diverse socioeconomic. Side by side, it is possible to purchase cans of Goya black beans and an artisanal croissant with espresso.
Stepping out of the market the group first paused on the north side of Houston to learn about the Seward Park Urban Redevelopment Area (SPURA). In 1965 the City of New York acquired 5 parcels to the north and south of East Houston. The purpose was to follow through with a federal initiative to tear down tenement buildings and replace them with low income housing.
However, by 1965 the Robert Moses era of willing projects into existence had already slowed down. From the 1960s through today numerous attempts to work with City Council and community members to identify the right development for the land has failed. One of the more interesting early proposals for the site was that it might be the beginning of a mega building that would span half the width of the island of Manhattan! It’s probably for the best, this did not come to pass.
The most material proposal came in 1989 during Mayor Edward Koch’s administration, however massive community opposition to the plan led to it’s ultimate abandonment. More recently, the winds shifted in October of 2012 when the City Council voted unanimously in favor of a development proposal. It seems the SPURA saga is finally nearing an end.
The current plan is that the new site will be 60 percent residential use and 40 percent commercial. Half of the proposed thousand new apartments are to be permanently affordable, and on top of it all, one of the new buildings will house the Lower East Side’s new Andy Warhol museum. The development will also entail the expansion and redevelopment of the Essex Street Market.
Details on the SPURE development can be found here on the NYC EDC website.
From the market we wound our way along Norfolk Street towards Orchard Street. Along the way we paused to look at an instance of Transfer Development Rights (TDR). This is where adjacent buildings buy and sell the right to build additional floors. Buildings in different zoning areas a limited to different levels of Floor Area Ratio (FAR). A 1 FAR allows you to build 1 floor across your entire parcel. A 2 FAR allows you to build 2 floors across your entire parcel.
However, TDR allows adjacent buildings to buy and sell FAR within an localized area if buildings have not built their entire allotment. In the below image, you can see how this occurred between the large blue building in the center of the photo and its neighbors. The building towers over its the buildings on its left and right. This extra large height is allowed because the blue building likely bought its additional height from the low building flanking its right hand side. In such a transaction, the low building sells its future building allowance to its neighboring building. Once that right to build is sold, the lower building owner has sold off the future right to build higher. This transfer of future development rights will hold even if the owner who sold the FAR sells the lot. Making such a transaction allows the low building’s owner to cash-out value from the parcel.
Ultimately, our group worked our way down Orchard Street and arrived at the Amalgamated Dwellings, Inc. building located on Grand Street between Willett and Columbia Streets. Constructed in the 1930 for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union members, this Art-Deco 236-apartment structure represents one of the district’s many super block apartment buildings.
While from the outside the building aesthetically blends in with the surrounding unremarkable towers, when it was constructed it was built amongst tenement buildings. It was the original oddball. The architects Springsteen and Goldhammer, were recognized for the elegance of the building’s simplicity. Much of the buildings stylistic inspiration comes from Vienna. Beyond the exterior style, the intent of the building was to create a building that turned away from the street.
Historic 1930 photo of the Amalgamated Dwelling Apartment entrance. Source: Cornell’s Catherwood Library, where the Amalgamated Clothing Worker’s archive is held.
Photo of the same entrance, taken during our visit.
Centered on an expansive courtyard, the original intent of the union workers’ community was to isolate themselves from the chaos of the surrounding streets and create a controlled idyllic world within the building. Bob Balder connected the group with his longtime friend William Rockwell who provided access to the building. A practicing architect and resident of the building, William shared the building’s extensive history and took us on an inside and outside tour of the structure.
Seeing the community theater room and the anti-railroad style of the interior room conveys the original union values. Non-railroading, I learned, means that all of the rooms in each apartment were originally built to be accessed from hallways. So, no access to bedrooms would be the result of having to pass through another room, as they would be in a railroad style apartment. When the co-operative was first built this amenity was considered to be a luxury. Even though the Amalgamated Dwellings units were low cost union apartments, the railroad-free aspect of them represents the union’s priorities of dignity for the individual.
MRP students with William (right), crowded around a dining room table in one of the building’s 236 apartments.
Shortly after the Amalgamated Dwelling building was constructed the New York City Housing Authority began constructing its first super block apartments. A short walk further down the street visiting NYCHA’s (New York City Housing Authority) Vladeck House, built in 1939, the similarity in scale of the buildings is striking.
See where we were by clicking on the blue bubbles below to see a few more anecdotes from our tour.