|The Manhattan Institutes|
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the citys planning, housing, and development
Starrett Citythe immense, barracks-style housing project in East New York, Brooklyn, that opened in 1974is serving these days as a paradigm of planning principles, good and bad. Are huge towers necessary to respond to relentless residential demand? Can they be made livable? Was Robert Moses right, and Jane Jacobs wrong, about size? Unpopular as large developments are, planner Alex Garvin argues, "It's high time we started building projects of the same dimensions. We will never solve the housing problem while waiting for a small developer to build here and there." Indeed, the classic bungalow neighborhood of Canarsie, built by small developers, sits immediately across the creek fromand within view ofStarrett's towers. The two paths of development could hardly be more stark.
Starrett, more public than private development, has always been highly subsidized. It has benefitted from below-market-interest-rate loans, tax abatements on the property, tax breaks for wealthy owners, rental subsidies, and senior assistance. Should projects once subsidized be permanently subsidized? At what ongoing cost should affordable housing be maintained?
AN EXTRAORDINARY PRICE
Real estate experts in New York generally say nounless the buyers have something up their sleeve, or know something no one else does. Former housing commissioner Jerilyn Perine, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, says, "The price just doesn't make sense."
After all, unlike Manhattan's Peter Cooper Village-Stuyvesant Town, recently sold for $5.4 billion, Starrett City is so entangled with government that its sale must be approved by federal and state housing officialsnot one of whom has spoken out publicly in its favor. On the contrary, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson warned, "This transaction has the potential to harm New York City's low-income housing market and those who need it." Senator Chuck Schumer said bluntly that he would do everything he could to block the sale.
While the Bloomberg administration as of now has no official veto, it can easily stymie the rezoning that further development would require. Mayor Bloomberg and his commissioners are definitely not feeling all that friendly at the moment. "The mayor believes strongly that private owners should have the right to sell their property and to reap rewards from that ownership," says housing commissioner Shaun Donovan. "But owners must also live up to their legal responsibility both to maintain their property and to provide affordability where itís required. Taxpayers must be represented and must get what they paid for."
WELL-MANAGED, FULLY OCCUPIED
Still, one of the many ironies of Starrett City is that it has long been a well-managed, desirable, fully occupied development, even though it defies most ideas of good design, not to mention good location.
Built on landfill next to a garbage dump, an arduous 90-minute subway ride from the jobs of Manhattan, Starrett City's 46 towers are divided into eight sections or loops. Each with its own recreational area and garage, the towers look from a distance like rigidly placed public housing. Up close, they look better, in part because much of the property is nicely landscaped. The grounds are clean and contain very little litter, the park benches are unvandalized, the buildings graffiti-free. Good shopping, including a 124,000-square-foot shopping center, is within walking distance of nearly all the towers.
Yet, however well maintained and managed, Starrett City provides plain apartments in severe towers that would never be mistaken for luxury housing. The seller is unlikely to be able to recoup his investment through grossly increased rents because the market rents are unlikely to be much higher than current rentscertainly not the thousands of dollars per month higher that the new owners of, say, Stuy Town can anticipate. Says Perine, "The question is not the rents, which aren't that far from market now, but the development potential, which may be high. Yes, it's far out in Brooklyn. But this is New York. Someone will move there."
Real estate consultant Robert C. Rosenberg, who as the president of Grenadier Realty managed Starrett City for most of its history, says he could envision two development scenarios. One possibility is that as ever more tenants pay market rents, they might find they qualify for a mortgage, allowing them to buy their apartmentsreturning Starrett to its original heritage as a co-op. The second possibility would be marketing new multi-bedroom units to large Orthodox families being squeezed out of Williamsburg. Since many now qualify for Section 8 certificates, this strategy would be compatible with the new owner's statement that he intends to keep the project "affordable." (The New York Times, however, has reported accusations from community organizer Acorn that the new owner has refused to rent apartments to some Section 8 applicants at his other Brooklyn buildings.)
NEW TOWERS IN THE PARK?
So if Clipper's strategy is to develop the property further, they have gotten off to a bad start with their needed government partners. But are they genuinely bad landlords? Their intentions are hard to judge.
The truth is that Flatbush Gardens look far better today than in 2004. The buildings have received substantial work, and the grounds are clean. The complex gives an appearance of being in transitionthe debris has been cleared, but no new landscaping has replaced the old. Some buildings have been renovatednew walkways and awnings cheer the exteriors, and new windows sparkle. Other buildings languish. Still, this had been one of the most notorious slums in Brooklyn, so the progress in two years is substantial.
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