With the rumble of pile drivers now in full swing, it’s safe to say the Lower East Side is starting to feel the impact of the massive Essex Crossing development rising up out of the neglected parking lots of Delancey Street. Next week, the developers behind the project, Delancey Street Associates (DSA), are holding a public meeting to hash out concerns and details on construction and jobs. As the neighborhood gears up for the next phases of work and the imminent influx of new residents and business, we snagged some time with Katie Archer, DSA’s new director of community relations, so she could give us an overview of where the project stands.
Archer is optimistic (duh) that the LES can continue to adapt the old with the new. “People are always hesitant about change, and this neighborhood is largely comprised by tenement buildings– so, you know, there will be some big, shiny, glass towers,” Archer said, sipping coffee at one of her favorite recent spots, El Rey. “And there will definitely be more people milling about, but it’s hopefully going to make the Lower East Side more of a destination.” She ticked off the new Regal Cinemas movie theater, park space, a TBD cultural center, a bowling alley, a grocery store, Planet Fitness, and the new-and-improved Essex Street Market and Market Line (whew!) as things that will draw more people and improve life for current residents.
For more on this ambitious project’s potential ramifications, read below and get your questions ready for next Thursday.
Business and office space
With few companies based on the Lower East Side and no real office buildings, daytimes can be sleepy. In some ways, this has pushed the area towards “nightlife district” territory because packed clubs and bars can usually come up with the money for the high rents.
Before her new gig, Archer was director of programs and services at the LES Business Improvement District for six years. In that role, she was constantly thinking of how to spread the dollars around, routing visitors between art galleries, street fairs and history tours to local shops and restaurants.
Now, she thinks the dearth of foot traffic may soon be solved with the help of new daytime workers. “The BID advocated really strongly for office space because the people who are working during the day will be going out to lunch, will be shopping on their lunch break, will be going out to dinner after work. So we felt that office space was very important to the neighborhood,” Archer said.
She couldn’t tell me what the spaces will look like or what kinds of companies it might attract yet, but Essex Crossing could definitely be a big change-up for the majority single-batch shops nearby, depending what kinds of companies make their home here: tech startups? corporate types? creative production companies? coworking spaces? The challenge might be to make sure the current unique businesses meld with the new office workers, or we might see an influx of those fast-healthy-food office drones love, like Chop’t and Dig Inn. Not terrible spots, but perhaps not a plus in the fabric of the neighborhood either.
With that in mind, I asked Archer how the LES would be able to preserve retail diversity even as it expands. Nearby landlords seem to be already salivating over the chance to hike rents. Last month we even received a press release from Eastern Consolidated hyping a building at 125 Rivington with this lovely prediction:
The increased foot traffic Essex Crossing is expected to bring is already being factored into the area’s retail rents, which are well over $100 per square foot, a threshold rarely seen in the Lower East Side. In the very near future, Essex Crossing will serve as a magnet for New Yorkers and tourists who will flock to this area that was once viewed primarily as a weekend and nighttime destination for hip bars and restaurants.
Yikes! That gives us the shivers. But Archer pointed to another big change for area business, the new Essex Street Market location, as a conduit for small businesses. While we’ll be sad to see the 75-year-old market (whose history we recently delved into) leave its quirky historic building, Archer thinks its move across the street will help boost sales and open new spaces so that unique companies with many different price points have a chance to get started.
“The Essex Street Market is my favorite part of the neighborhood,” she said. “I really love the vendors there, and right now that building is not benefitting anyone. So those vendors are all going to be moved to a shiny, new, beautiful facility with properly working air conditioning and windows and light.”
Underneath, the Market Line will host a European-style market that also includes small retail spaces. “There’s going to be a variety of different kinds of small footprints that people can lease out within the Market Line,” she said. “I’m hoping that people who can’t necessarily afford brick-and-mortar rents can get a foothold into the neighborhood. And I think that’s going to help retail diversity.”
She added that many of the longtime market vendors are an important lifeline to customers from nearby public housing buildings. “When we speak about the diversity of Essex Market and the Market Line, thats what we are speaking to — that there will be a variety of price levels that can serve a variety of income levels within the community,” she said. “The development team is very mindful of that, and that was part of, kind of, the community consensus — this neighborhood is wildly diverse and we need to serve everyone who lives here.”
No details yet on the future supermarket, but hopefully it’s something more affordable than another Whole Foods. Additionally, one of the future retail spaces in site 6 is already slated to be specifically community-oriented: Think Coffee will open a cafe that doubles as a training center for teens and young adults, in partnership with Grand Street Settlement, who will own and operate it.
Still, even with the best of intentions it’s hard to understand the full effect the new development could have on surrounding rents and small local storefronts. Becoming more of a destination also means even more demand for space — it’s not entirely clear if the increased foot traffic would be a boon for current shops or a cannibal in disguise.
We’ll soon see many more people visiting, but who will be living here? It’s still too early to get into the nitty gritty, unfortunately, but the conception of Essex Crossing is pretty unprecedented in the level of community involvement and input that went into it — the project got off the ground after four decades of wrangling, with a full half of the 1,000 new housing units slated for affordable housing and a building just for seniors.
But the affordable housing ranges from 40-155 percent of the Area Median Income (see income brackets here). To keep that in perspective, for a couple at 40%, the income ceiling is $27,640, while at 155%, it’s $107,105. Archer said the majority of the affordable housing apartments — 313 units — will be finished by the end of Phase 1, likely in 2017.
Since new businesses and applying for housing is still a ways into the future, Archer said one of the most pressing concerns at the moment is connecting work opportunities with area residents.
“I think the community sees this huge project, they’re aware of the scale of the project and you know, automatically people think that there’s going to be tons of jobs,” said Archer. “And there will be tons of jobs. Once the buildings are complete, after Phase 1, there’s going to be a ton of long-term jobs.” This means employees for the supermarket, bowling alley, maintenance for new buildings, etc.
But at the moment, construction jobs on the sites themselves (which Archer estimated were around 200 positions) are not always easy to link up with LES residents. A new laborer or construction worker must have Occupational Safety and Health Administration training (and sometimes others), and often needs to join a union, which costs money. “It’s been challenging so far, because a lot of the positions within the project require some skills,” said Archer. “So we are working with Lower East Side Employment Network (LESEN) to identify candidates that live in or around our construction sites, to get training and to get work on the projects.”
Still, it is not a quick process – Archer said LESEN recently got a grant to give OSHA training, but it already has a waiting list. “We need to help them in getting more programming and training going on, so thats what we’re working on,” Archer said.
Stay tuned for more developments, or bring your concerns and questions to the meeting next week.
The public meeting will be held Jan. 28 at Grand Street Settlement Community Room, 80 Pitt Street b/w Rivington & Stanton, 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Construction and jobs will be discussed, but not housing. Email Info@EssexCrossingNYC.com for more details or questions.