While contemporary urban thought tends to malign this type of housing as a relic of outmoded theories of urban form, specific towers-in-the-park may have particular advantages that must be more fully understood if we are to align New York’s extant supply of housing with our goals of encouraging socio-economic diversity in the city. To that end, we have commissioned a series of writers to investigate specific examples of this typology in a non-typological way. In December, labor expert Ari Paul visited Electchester, Queens, to uncover what contemporary lessons might be drawn from the history of housing built by labor unions. This week, journalist Sarika Bansal investigates Alfred E. Smith Houses, a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) project in the Lower East Side, and its long tradition of grassroots organizing.
An exploration of the activist spirit at Smith Houses is particularly timely, as the campus is one of eight at which NYCHA has proposed developing new property to cross-subsidize the agency’s growing budget shortfalls. Tenants from Smith Houses have been very vocal in their opposition to the plan, and many have filed suit against the housing authority. Understanding this contemporary controversy requires engaging a long history of local advocacy, tensions between successive waves of immigrant groups, and chronic underfunding of public housing. That history is among the intangible forces that contributes, in highly site-specific ways, to the experience of place and the bonds of community in this particular patch of New York City. And teasing out those forces is what allows us to move beyond typecasting particular models of housing and toward a more nuanced understanding of our existing built environment’s assets, social as well as physical.
New Towers, Same Park?
One night last February, hundreds of residents of Alfred E. Smith Houses, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, gathered in a gymnasium for an “emergency tenant meeting.” Emotions ran high as Margarita Lopez, then a board member of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), tried to explain why the agency was considering leasing some of its land for market-rate development. Citing NYCHA’s declining budget, Lopez said that the city agency had identified eight public housing developments with space for “infill development,” including Smith Houses. The rent collected from the new market-rate housing, she said, could help fill the agency’s substantial operating and capital deficits.
“NYCHA face[s] a structural annual operating deficit of $60 million, and $14 billion dollars in unfunded capital improvements for new roofs, brickwork, heating and plumbing systems and elevators,” wrote NYCHA in a news release (estimates about NYCHA’s capital needs vary). Smith Houses alone requires $227 million in major capital improvements in this period.
Lopez emphasized that public housing residents would not be displaced in the process — and that 20 percent of the new units would be reserved for affordable housing.
“When you look around the city, [public housing] is the last source of developable land,” said Nicholas Bloom, a public housing historian at the New York Institute of Technology and author of the book Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. “If they do it right, they’re creating a permanent fund for the maintenance of NYCHA buildings.”
Public housing advocates doubt whether NYCHA will in fact be able to “do it right.” At the February meeting, Smith tenants raised dozens of concerns. Some residents demanded guarantees from NYCHA regarding capital improvements. Others asked about the implications of new residents for the neighborhood schools. Still others worried about potential clashes between public housing residents and well-heeled Manhattanites.
“Two different cultures will be living on the same land,” said Mayzabeth Lopez, a community organizer at Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a neighborhood housing and preservation advocacy group. “People who have money may want to demand other things in the neighborhood. It makes it feel like it’s not being built for you, but for that certain population.”
Underscoring these concerns was a general sense that Smith residents have little to gain from the proposal. “There is nothing for us here,” exclaimed one resident at the meeting. “You’re not building nothing for our community!” In response to the concerns voiced, Aixa Torres, president of Smith’s tenant association, informed the group that they were seeking legal counsel — and that NYCHA should be prepared for a fight.
True to her word, over three hundred individual Smith tenants banded together two months later to file a lawsuit against NYCHA — the first of two lawsuits in 2013. Gas lines had been going down throughout Smith’s buildings, among a backlog of other maintenance problems, such as broken appliances, cracked plaster, leaks, plumbing malfunctions, and electrical issues. After Hurricane Sandy, mold became an additional problem in the buildings closest to the East River.
Starting in 2010, wait times for individual unit repairs at Smith Houses seemed only to get longer. This appeared to be the case in public housing units across the city. As of March 2013, over 8,000 lawsuits regarding repairs were pending against NYCHA.
In response to Smith’s lawsuit, NYCHA representatives said, “The land lease plan, through the revenue it would generate, would directly address these [repair] needs at Smith Houses.” Exactly how the revenue would be distributed among different maintenance priorities is yet to be determined, according to Bloom.
Smith residents considered this blackmail. “We feel NYCHA is holding residents hostage, forcing residents to support their plan whether it’s in their best interest or not,” Torres told the Daily News. “We should not be at the mercy of a real estate deal.”
In June, a mere five weeks after bringing their three hundred concerns to court, the judge ruled in Smith residents’ favor, and repairs have since been underway. The land lease proposal, meanwhile, is under scrutiny.
“Smith Houses is one of the older buildings, so a lot of changes need to be made,” a NYCHA mechanic named Lance told me. “Other buildings need attention too, but Smith is in the spotlight. People here make a lot of noise.”
Mayzabeth Lopez agrees. “Smith [residents] have this real true activist spirit in them,” she said. “They get the importance of preserving housing for the next generation. They feel that if they don’t stop [the] land lease plan, it’ll end public housing as we know it.”
After growing up in public housing in Williamsburg, and working with a dozen housing projects today, she said that Smith Houses is noticeably different from other projects in that regard. Indeed, among the eight developments affected by the land lease proposal, Smith tenants have been the most audible in opposition to the plan.
A Tradition of Action
In many ways, the current activist spirit at Alfred E. Smith is a legacy of its rich history. The development, which opened its doors in 1953, was built in place of teeming tenement row houses, in what was then predominantly a neighborhood of Catholic immigrants from Southern Europe.
Victor Papa, director of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, a local nonprofit, grew up across the street from Smith Houses. “I watched the demolition of several tenement buildings,” he said. “I remember the pile drivers, the noise, seeing it from my window. That was in 1949. Smith Houses were constructed shortly afterwards.”
The development is situated in a part of the Lower East Side known as Two Bridges, due to its location between the Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge. The sprawling project consists of twelve brick buildings, which today house over four thousand people.
In stark contrast to the congested tenements, Smith’s campus was built on the model of “towers-in-the-park.” The buildings themselves have few distinguishing features; like many housing projects in the United States, they are rectangular, made of dark brick, and stand about 16 stories high.
The campus, however, offers a distinct sense of respite, especially when compared to the bustling Chinatown streets nearby. Buildings at Smith Houses are separated by wide and inviting walkways, many lined with benches and trees. There are two playgrounds for children, as well as a recreation facility. During the summer, the space is often used for fairs, music festivals, and other activities.
Kerri Culhane, associate director of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, said Smith was intentionally designed to foster a sense of community. “When it opened, Smith provided things like childcare and job training classes,” she said. “It was intended to be a stable community to move people to the middle class.”
“The new design concept for housing emphasized the necessity for light, air and space in order to provide a standard of living for the working class citizen by redeveloping the current city block, shifting the density of the buildings from outward to upward, and combining multiple blocks into a superblock,” wrote Jessica Smith in a blog for the nonprofit Docomomo, which documents modernist buildings and neighborhoods.
Bloom estimates that between 70 and 80 percent of Smith Houses’ land is open space. Unfortunately, in recent years, much of the open green space has been razed in favor of parking lots or dumpster corrals. Long before NYCHA started to consider the infill plan, tenants and advocates had been critiquing the changes, saying the original “towers-in-the-park” design was turning into “towers-in-the-parking-lot.”
Smith Houses opened at a delicate time, demographically speaking, when Puerto Rican and black families were beginning to enter the neighborhood. In fact, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council — now predominantly a housing rights organization — was founded in 1955 to ease mounting tensions between racial groups.
In some instances, rivalry turned to violence. Ivan Hecker, who lived at Smith during the 1960s and 1970s, told me that while growing up, Italian boys would sometimes throw bottles at him and his Puerto Rican friends from their rooftops. In response, Hecker became a member of the “Smith boy” gang when he was 13. “People from other neighborhoods couldn’t walk out [of Smith Houses] without something happening to them,” he said.
Despite his gang participation, Hecker went to church on Sundays growing up. For a time, he was even an altar boy with some of his Italian neighbors.
Papa, who is Italian-American, experienced some friction as well, though less violently. While at church, he met a Puerto Rican woman who grew up in Smith Houses, whom he eventually married. “It was considered unusual, and caused a lot of curiosity on the day of our wedding,” he said, adding that some attendees were wondering if she’d make it to the altar. “It was one of those weddings, an evolution of assimilation.”
According to Papa, the local church in the 1960s was instrumental in bringing the neighborhood together — and in planting seeds for community activism. “Churches served as mitigating agencies [to quell] negative tensions among the races,” he said. “They were able to assimilate Hispanic and Europeans by virtue of Catholicism. It plays a lot into activism, since many church leaders became advocates for conditions at Smith.” Papa credits the clergy’s activism for his personally becoming involved in civic life.
Aixa Torres, the current president of Smith Houses’ Tenant Association, has a similar attitude regarding the church. “A church is not there to attend on Sundays,” she said. “It’s there to serve the community. If we don’t do that, we’re not serving God.”
She also believes that the activist culture at Smith is a function of the long-term outlook many residents share. “[My family is] fourth generation — and we’re not unique,” she said. “When you have that kind of stability, it allows for developing leaders.”
The Land Lease Proposal: Responses and Strategies
Smith’s opposition to the land lease idea began in earnest at the February meeting with Margarita Lopez. It became particularly intense after the proposals were released in March.
The first land lease proposal at Smith Houses included two 55-story residential buildings facing outwards to the river, replacing a parking lot, and a 35-story residential building built over what is currently a basketball court and baseball diamond. “The Smith proposal was definitely one of the extremes, because they wanted to take advantage of the riverfront views,” said Bloom.
Residents and advocates alike found major flaws with the proposal. “The only space we have to build is where the two most vulnerable buildings are,” said Torres, referring to the buildings closest to the water, which were badly hit during Hurricane Sandy. “They’re going to have to dig to put foundations to support buildings twice the height of the existing ones. You don’t think that [will] disturb the two buildings?”
Urban Justice Center, a legal service and advocacy organization, is co-leading a lawsuit on behalf of five housing projects — including Smith — regarding the land lease proposal. It claims that NYCHA failed to conduct environmental reviews or floodplain analyses to see whether the land is suitable for construction.
There are also concerns regarding the implications for the public housing community. “The proposed entranceway is facing away from Smith,” said Mayzabeth Lopez of GOLES. “It’s very disrespectful. And you’re going to take away the park for the kids. There’s lots of activity there, especially in the summer.” Residents also fear the repercussions on auxiliary services like water, sanitation, and schooling.
“NYCHA’s intentions were good, from their perspective,” said Bloom. “But they made a number of strategic errors. The most important one was leading with the money. The eagerness from the [real estate] development community confirmed many long-term suspicions on the part of tenants. Residents are well aware that in other cities, public housing has become a land grab. So [NYCHA’s] opening act was a financial play, and then they tried to back into a more social perspective. I don’t know who was advising them on this.”
I reached out to NYCHA for comment, but was told that their policy was to not comment on proposals during the review process.
Kerri Culhane, of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, believes the existing land lease proposal represents a huge missed opportunity. “There could be a very smart way infill could be done that would achieve everyone’s goal,” she said. “Why not create a [mixed use] low-rise neighborhood, at the scale of a community? Make it a real neighborhood.”
Amid these debates is a larger looming question: will these proposals achieve NYCHA’s primary goal? Will the market-rate developments allow the city agency to raise the money it needs for capital improvements?
On its website, NYCHA says the land lease developments will earn the agency an additional $30 to $50 million in annual rental income across the eight developments. This would help significantly close the $60 million annual operating deficit NYCHA faces. It is unclear, though, whether the funds will be used to close the operating deficit or directly applied to capital improvements, which is a significantly larger bill (estimates vary between $13 billion and $17 billion).
“NYCHA’s general financial position today has everything to do with the federal government,” said Bloom, referring to recent cutbacks in federal subsidies for public housing. “[Without the land lease], the only way these buildings are going to survive is if New York City … pays for them out of general funds.”
Lopez, Epstein, and other advocates have been proposing alternative schemes to raising the money. For instance, they have spoken in favor of cutting the $70 million NYCHA pays annually to the Police Department, which Mayor de Blasio has also called for. Other ideas include making public housing buildings greener to save on energy costs and shooting more films on the campuses. Bloom suggested that NYCHA could rethink its internal employee benefits and pension plans. However, it is unclear how viable or lucrative these alternatives are.
Lopez also suggested turning to the state or federal housing department for additional subsidies. Considering that the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s public housing capital fund has dropped by a billion dollars in the last decade, additional public housing funds are unlikely.
Next Steps for Infill
“When [the land lease proposal] started, only Smith came out opposed to it,” said Harvey Epstein, associate director at the Urban Justice Project. “Now, seven out of eight are opposed to it, and that’s because of the activism at Smith. Their [tenant] association is really organized. It’s not just a one-person shop; the leadership is both deep and wide.”
In a partial win for the tenants, the Bloomberg administration announced in August that it would slacken the pace of the land lease proposals. Instead of requesting formal proposals, they would instead solicit “expressions of interest” (RFEI) from developers — and specifically look for plans with features that many public housing residents favor, like retail activities and community spaces.
Smith’s dogged activism has, in this case, come at a time of many other changes in the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio ran his campaign on the platform of fighting citywide economic inequality. He vowed early in the race to fire John Rhea, the former NYCHA chairman, due to his inexperience in public housing. The agency is now waiting for a new chairman to be appointed.
De Blasio has also spoken against the initial land lease proposal. “There may well be a development plan that is believable and acceptable, but it has to be carefully constructed,” he told the Daily News. “But not the way it was done by Bloomberg.”
The future of the land lease proposal is uncertain. On December 19, NYCHA published a press release stating that the RFEI had closed, and that they had found “especially gratifying” proposals in the process. To NYCHA’s credit, the press release specifically mentions the need for increased community involvement. Additional details are yet to be disclosed. Bloom predicts that it will be difficult for the new NYCHA chairman to say no to some version of the proposal; the revenue potential is just too great.
Many public housing residents are in fact open to a more nuanced approach to infill development — especially if it includes features that directly benefit them. Residents at Smith Houses, however, will likely not fall in that category in the near future.
“I will be picketing the proposal,” said Torres. “Believe me.”
Papa is more hopeful that NYCHA will find a middle ground with Smith residents. “One tactic of community organizers is to never express their real positions at the beginning,” he said. “I’ve done that in my history. It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to understand the importance of dialogue.”
Sarika Bansal is a journalist who specializes in social innovation and global health. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Forbes, FastCompany, The Guardian, and more. She is also the Director of Partnerships at the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous journalism about responses to social problems. Sarika has previously worked in management consulting with McKinsey & Company and in microfinance business development in India. She holds an undergraduate degree in Disease and Public Policy from Harvard College and a Masters in Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is based in New York City.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by Anna Beeke. All rights reserved.
Anna Beeke is a documentary and fine arts photographer who was born in Washington, DC in 1984 and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. In 2013, she completed her MFA in Photography, Video, and Related Media at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. She is also a graduate of the International Center of Photography’s certificate program in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography (2009), and she received her BA in English from Oberlin College (2007). Anna has been the recipient of various awards and grants, including the Humble Art Foundation’s 2013 WIP/LTI Lightside Materials Grant and 2013 too much chocolate + Kodak film grant. Her work is included in the “reGeneration2: tomorrow’s photographers today” project and has been exhibited at various international galleries and festivals, such as the Musee de L’Elysee in Switzerland, Recontres d’Arles, and the Pingyao International Photography Festival, as well as at the Aperture Gallery and ClampArt in NYC.