Press : CityViews: Let’s Stop the Zero-Sum Debate Pitting Open Space vs. Affordable Housing by Paul Castrucci

By Karen Haycox and Scott Short | June 21, 2018


The vision for Haven Green.

As New York City grapples with the challenges of fitting a growing population into its finite borders, residents and government alike must reexamine how we use our public land. The predominant community development models of prior decades, used when eradicating urban blight was the priority, are outdated. Now that we have transformed a city full of vacant lots into a city full of people, we must ensure that all public land is put to its highest and best use. This prevailing need to do more with less has in some cases, drawn new battle lines where alliances once existed.

Nonprofit community development organizations like RiseBoro Community Partnership and Habitat for Humanity New York City, as stewards of public resources, are often the ones tasked with meeting competing public priorities within constrained environments. We have found that the growing scarcity of available public land has pitted potential allies, open space advocates and affordable housing advocates, against each other in competition for a dwindling piece of the pie.

This resource rivalry has most recently, and perhaps most tragically, resurfaced in relation to projects serving communities which are facing increasing market value, where inequitable market forces threaten to push out longtime residents. As an ongoing impact of historic inequity continuing to play out across the city, communities now feel pressured to choose between affordable housing resources or open space access. We believe that the choice between affordable housing and open space is a false dichotomy, that they are in fact complementary components of thriving communities, and that we can and must have both at the same time.

The complex goals of communities must be addressed holistically, with a commitment to developing assets that enrich and empower resident experience. This can only be achieved when projects that utilize public assets are developed to explicitly maximize public benefit. Affordable housing and open public space are both essential to the health and vitality of communities, but must not be considered a zero sum game.

CityViews is City Limits’ showcase for opinions from around the city and the world.

RiseBoro and Habitat NYC’s partnership with Pennrose Properties to redevelop a City-owned parcel, which is currently utilized as a community-led garden space, into a new project known as Haven Green accomplishes just that – preserving access to cherished open space while providing affordable homes for one of our most vulnerable populations.

Seniors are the fastest growing population in the United States, and the need for affordable senior housing has never been greater. A study by LiveOn estimates 200,000 individuals remain on the waiting list for senior affordable housing throughout New York City, averaging seven years. Affordable housing is especially difficult to find for the historically marginalized LGBTQ community. At the same time, we understand the desire of many in Little Italy to preserve every piece of publicly accessible open space in an increasingly gentrified community. That is why our proposal for Haven Green is a marriage of these ideals: more than 120 units of low-income, LGBTQ-friendly, senior housing located within a public, locally-stewarded garden reimagined through a community-led participatory design process.

Engaging with complex narratives and creating collaborative opportunity where potential conflict exists is the essence of the challenging and rewarding work of community development. We believe that when government, communities, and mission-driven developers work together we can create projects that empower individuals, satisfy multiple priorities, and deliver wide-ranging social benefit. Threading this needle successfully is critical to the urgent work of making our cities livable and sustainable for generations to come.

Karen Haycox is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity New York City and Scott Short is the CEO of RiseBoro Community Partnership.

Link to original article

Press in The Lo-Down : Carmen Pabon Garden Opens on Avenue C, Ending 17-Year-Long Ordeal by Paul Castrucci

Paul A. Castrucci Architect was hired to design the community garden. The firm has a history of working with community groups. As well as helping developers create projects that are sustainable and community oriented. 

After waiting for 17 years, the Lower East Side got a treasured community garden back yesterday, and a controversial developer gained a little bit of local good will.

Community leaders, including City Council member Rosie Mendez, dedicated Carmen Pabon del Amanecer Garden on Avenue C in a late afternoon ribbon cutting. The occasion marked the end of one of the neighborhood’s longest running battles.

Back in 1999, developer Donald Capoccia of BFC Partners bulldozed several lots between East 7th and 8th streets to create Eastville Gardens. The mixed income project (including 20% affordable housing) spelled the demise of Esperanza Garden. In an editorial at the time, the New York Times criticized the Giuliani administration’s decision to hand the city-owned property over to a private developer. “No city ownership right can quite absolve the mayor and his administration of insensitivity in their handling of community gardens,” wrote the Times. “A patch of green or a plot of flowers can often do more for a neighborhood than new apartments and retail establishments.”  Capoccia’s reputation took a beating locally during weeks of protest. Ill will towards him has persisted all of these years.

But a lot has changed in almost two decades. In her remarks yesterday, Council member Mendez went out of her way to praise Capoccia and BFC Partners, saying, “It really was working with him that we got a board together, got the board incorporated. They’re providing a trust fund for this place.” [Mendez also thanked her predecessor, Margarita Lopez, who negotiated the original agreement to restore the garden.]

Before the ribbon cutting, Capoccia made brief remarks, telling community activists gathered in the newly opened space, “It’s really the beginning of my rehabilitation” in the neighborhood. Capoccia said he’s now an, “embracer of community gardens.”

Another developer, Ron Moelis of L+M Development Partners, was also present at yesterday’s event. His firm recently purchased Eastville Gardens. L+M and BFC Partners make up two out of three developers of Essex Crossing, the large mixed-use project being built on the former Seward Park urban renewal site. So their profiles in the neighborhood continue to grow.

Pabon was on hand for the ceremony. Thirty years ago, she established the original garden, creating a vibrant community space and a refuge for the struggling Lower East Side community, including many homeless people. There’s a plaque outside the garden that refers to Pabon as “The Mother of Loisaida.” Mendez called her, “a true fighter, a true Lower East Side hero.” Link to original article

The Lower East Side Biography Project told Pabon’s story a few years ago:

117-119 Ave C Alphabet City Garden | Oct. 26, 2016 by Paul Castrucci

Ribbon Cutting & Re-Opening Ceremony

Wednesday - October 26, 2016 | 4:30pm - 5:30pm

Paul A. Castrucci, Architect join community leaders, politicians and developers BFC Partners and SMJ Development in the ribbon cutting and re-opening celebration of Carmen Pabon Del Amanecer Garden. The firm is committed to sustainability, equity, and community. Principle architect, Paul A. Castrucci, was a key speaker at the event and extended the firm's gratitude for being involved with realizing this project.   

The firm was founded 30 years ago by architect and community advocate Paul A. Castrucci to establish an architecture practice around craftsmanship, functionality and the preservation of the environment. 


Press in The New York Times : Umbrella House: East Village Co-op Run by Former Squatters by Paul Castrucci


Umbrella House has come a long way from the late 1980s, when a handful of squatters broke into what was then an abandoned city-owned tenement house and claimed it as their home. Today, most of the early homesteaders remain and the building has been converted into a co-op that operates like many others, though with a more utopian and collectivist ethos.

On a recent afternoon Parker Pracjek, a college administrator and adjunct professor who has lived in Umbrella House for a decade, was on the roof, discussing the building’s newest undertaking: an 820-square-foot vegetable garden tended by volunteers. The garden provides fresh produce and herbs for the 32 or so inhabitants of the 18 apartments, as well as a respite from some of the rigors of city life.

“After a morning spent in a piece of nature, I just might be able to face the concrete and the throngs of people below,” Ms. Pracjek said. “We don’t always think about the grounding or sanity that comes from picking one’s own meal from a garden.”

Thirteen years ago, the City of New York ended years of conflict with the squatters of the East Village by agreeing to give them 11 buildings they had taken over. The deal included Umbrella House, so named by residents who imagined it might function as a central hub for housing activists.

Since the transfer, hundreds of squatters in various buildings have gradually made the transition from outlaw homesteaders to shareholders in strictly regulated co-ops that are subject to rules limiting both the income of buyers and the profit that sellers can earn.

Like residents of any co-op, those living in Umbrella House, at 21-23 Avenue C, between East Second and East Third Streets, have elected board members to preside over meetings, arrange the rental of commercial storefronts and review applications from potential purchasers. But at Umbrella House, which is still occupied by people who believe firmly that housing should not be defined by profit, each of those tasks is handled differently from how it might be in a more conventional co-op building.

There is, for instance, the way that new residents are selected.

From Park Avenue to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, co-op board interviews are feared ordeals in which prospective buyers are grilled about employment, investments and sometimes even where a candidate’s child goes to kindergarten. These boards typically hand down decisions by fiat with little in the way of transparency. And the prospect of appearing before them can inspire such dread that some real estate brokers instruct aspiring buyers before an interview the same way that a trial lawyer might prepare a witness for cross-examination.

At Umbrella House, on the other hand, there has never been a sale involving a broker. Potential residents are chosen from a list of friends, longtime Lower East Side dwellers or people whose lives and interests have overlapped somehow with those of existing shareholders. In many ways, candidates are vetted by Umbrella House just as carefully as they would be by other co-ops, but interviews are likely to focus more on community organizing than a credit score. All residents may play a role in meeting candidates and participating in a weighted vote, choosing up to five people in order of preference. The one with the highest vote total is then selected.

As part of the legalization arrangement, the deed to Umbrella House was transferred from the city for a dollar.  The building is now operated as a limited equity co-op and in accordance with Housing Development Fund Corporation rules, residents said. An agreement with the city specifies that buyers can earn no more than 120 percent of the median area income, which translates to about $72,000 for a single person and about $93,000 for a family of three.

There is a 10 percent flip tax on sales, and prices are capped but rise incrementally each year. Maintenance fees also rise annually, by 2 percent. These days, a two-bedroom apartment at Umbrella House goes for $161,000 with a monthly maintenance fee of $550. The building has three studios, four one-bedrooms, nine two-bedrooms and two three-bedrooms.

Steven Ashmore, an artist who was among those who used sledgehammers to enter the building in 1988, said that keeping Umbrella House affordable as the neighborhood grows ever more expensive was more important than selling for market-rate prices.

“We earned it, but it was also a gift,” Mr. Ashmore said of the building while sitting in his sixth-floor apartment. “Without the premise that this was about something bigger than us, the deal with the city probably wouldn’t have happened and probably shouldn’t have happened.”

Although the cost of living in Umbrella House is significantly lower than in many other East Village co-ops, not everyone would be a good fit there. The building still has a strong activist tilt and some familiarity with that world is valued. Shareholders see the building as a community and decisions are made using a system called “consensus minus one,” which strives for near unanimity. If only a single person objects to an initiative that otherwise has support, it may still go forward. But if two object, the idea is tabled.

In 2002, the City of New York gave possession of Umbrella House to the Urban Homesteaders Assistance Board, a nonprofit organization that served as a transitional owner.  Umbrella House members became shareholders, receiving the deed to the building in 2010 after performing required repairs

The building sold its first apartment that year to Miguel Valderrama, an immigrant from Colombia who works as a freelance lighting rigger for theatrical productions and concerts, and who paid $45,000 for a 300-square-foot studio. Before buying, Mr. Valderrama had been a roommate of a longtime resident and had participated in building tasks like shoveling snow and removing debris from the basement.  Three other apartments have turned over since then.

Mr. Valderrama said that having an affordable apartment allowed him to pursue work that he cared about, adding that he valued the democratic way the building is run.

“Your voice counts for something here,” he said. “We’re making decisions together.”

The very first squatters to occupy Umbrella House, a tenement built around 1900, were convinced that the city was warehousing empty buildings while private landlords profited. There were few places more hospitable to that perspective than the East Village, which seemed to be a province in perpetual revolt.

Mr. Ashmore and his comrades smashed through a cinderblock-filled window at Umbrella House just a few months after the Tompkins Square melee pitted raucous protesters objecting to a curfew in the park against hundreds of police officers, including some who covered their badge numbers while beating people with batons.

Back then, entire blocks east of the park consisted mainly of rubble and empty, decaying tenements that had fallen into city receivership because of unpaid water bills or taxes. It was a forbidding landscape where drug users lined up on sidewalks to buy heroin and buildings sometimes caught fire and burned all night, dotting the horizon with fingers of flame. But where many people saw blight, the squatters saw opportunity.

In 1988, the roof of Umbrella House was punctured by holes, giving another meaning to the name squatters had bestowed upon the building. Few windows had glass panes and rain and wind whipped through the halls. Entire flights of stairs in the walk-up building had been shattered and the squatters moved between floors on fire escapes.

Over the years the building’s inhabitants slowly made repairs. They rebuilt staircases, installed joists salvaged from other buildings and fixed a drain line so that they could have running water, work that drew support from some of their neighbors.

But they also had detractors. Proponents of gentrification, developers and people running nonprofit housing organizations that vied for control of city-owned buildings saw squatters as raffish obstacles. To city officials they were little more than criminal trespassers. Community board meetings occasionally became unruly as squatters confronted critics. And the police sometimes cleared out buildings by force. One particularly memorable episode came in 1995 when phalanxes of officers equipped with helmets, shields and an armored vehicle ousted squatters from two tenements on East 13th Street.

Umbrella House’s closest call came a year or so after the squatters moved in, when a tenement house next door collapsed and police officers evacuated nearby buildings. About half a dozen people barricaded themselves inside Umbrella House, fearing that if they left they would never be allowed back. At one point a metal claw attached to a mobile excavator that was being used to take down the collapsed building knocked into the side of Umbrella House. Those inside stood on fire escapes and draped banners across the front of the building in an effort to prevent further damage.

“It was a standoff,” said Lawrence Van Abbema, an artist and Umbrella House resident who took part in the demonstration. “In the end, they went back to demolition, but used a guy with a crowbar instead of that machine.”

Toward the end of the 1990s, city officials began exploring ways to make peace with the squatters. As part of the resulting arrangement, the century-old tenements they occupied had to be brought up to code. At Umbrella House, that involved masonry work, roof repairs and the installation of a heating system, among other things, said Tauno Biltsted, who has served as the building’s president and has lived in the East Village since he was a teenager.

Residents financed the repairs with weatherization grants and an $800,000 loan from the National Cooperative Bank, Mr. Biltsted said, adding that the building is paying back that loan at the rate of about $5,000 per month, with an additional $2,000 a month going into escrow accounts to establish two reserve funds and a fund for major repairs.

Umbrella House residents had already done extensive work on individual apartments before the agreement with the city and during the conversion phase. People put up sheet rock on their walls and were expected to complete their own bathrooms and kitchens.  Most did so, Mr. Biltsted said, adding that the building helped in some instances.

Over the years Umbrella House has lost cherished gathering space. The empty lot next door that was home to a garden is now the site of a six-story building with duplex apartments. For years, two ground-floor common areas were used for art shows and performances by squatter bands with names like Hooverville. But to keep maintenance low, Umbrella House decided in 2007 to turn those spaces into commercial storefronts and began looking for local businesses to move in rather than outsiders that might pay more. The tenants, both already established on the block, are a barbershop, which pays $5,000 a month, and a Spanish-language financial services store, which pays $2,000.

The surrender of the common areas is part of what made the roof garden a popular project. In 2012, residents voted to spend about $150,000 to create a garden area built upon 14-by-6-inch steel beams and topped by a mixture of gravel and soil. Their aim was to create a source of vegetables while stepping outside of the normal channels of food production and commerce.

The first planting was this spring and so far the garden has produced zucchini, tomatoes, okra, broccoli, spinach, beets, peas, eggplant, lettuce and Swiss chard, among other vegetables. A chalkboard on the ground floor lists what is ripe for the picking. And Ms. Pracjek, a trained herbalist, has formed what she calls the Umbrella House Apothecary,  sharing extracts she has made of hyssop and calendula from the roof garden.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, several Umbrella House residents gathered for a garden workday. Mr. Ashmore sprayed a mixture of baking soda, aspirin and other ingredients on tomato and zucchini leaves suffering from blight. Ms. Pracjek put some bamboo stakes in the ground to guide string bean stalks. Another resident, Geanme Marin, helped lug bags of organic soil.

Over the next few hours the group worked at various tasks. Mr. Biltsted and Mr. Valderrama measured an area next to the roof bulkhead, then went downstairs to cut lengths of cedar to build a compost bin that would go there. Upstairs the sun beat down and Ms. Pracjek offered fellow gardeners iced tea made with roof-grown chamomile and lemon balm.

Eventually, the day’s work was finished and those on the roof prepared to descend. Ms. Marin filled a basket with tomatoes, basil and broccoli, announcing as she walked downstairs, “Now I am ready to make dinner.”

A version of this article appears in print on July 19, 2015, on Page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: An Unfolding Story

Press EV GRIEVE : [Updated] An urban garden grows atop Umbrella House on Avenue C by Paul Castrucci


Via the EVG inbox… 

Today from 4 to 7 pm the former Lower East Side squat Umbrella House will host an open house to inaugurate its urban farming project. At 5 pm members of Umbrella’s Rooftop Garden Committee will speak briefly about the development of the project. 

EVENT RAINDATE: Sunday July 19; 4 — 7 pm.

This 820 square foot intensive green roof serves as a source of fresh produce for building residents, as a means to assist in storm water management, and as a model for other New York

The garden was initially conceived in early 2012 and construction was completed in December 2014. Now in its first growing season, the garden is producing swiss chard, broccoli, white onions, eggplant, okra, spinach, zucchini, basil, sugar snap peas, jalapeno peppers, lamb’s quarters, and several varieties of tomatoes; as well as medicinal plants: hyssop, lemon balm, chamomile, calendula, and passion flower.

Umbrella’s Rooftop Garden involved extensive construction: structural steel framing and concrete planking were required to build the raised 8” planting bed. Construction cost was $150,000. Area architect Paul Castrucci was the project architect.

Umbrella House members believe that this project is a worthy example for other co-ops and property owners to emulate. 

Umbrella House Garden Committee and Co-op Board Member Parker Pracjek states: “Access to healthy food through Farmer’s Markets, Green Food Carts, and Farm to Table initiatives have made some improvements to food health literacy in New York City, but more must be done. Food justice should be expanded to urban farming to transform underused spaces into productive environments. The benefits of urban farming are far-reaching and include decreased carbon footprint, responsible use of natural and human resources and community health.”

[Image via the Umbrella House website]

Umbrella House is at 21 Avenue C between East Second Street and East Third Street. 

Read more about the garden here. The New York Times has a feature on the garden here.