PURE GOLD: NEWSFLASH—REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION DOES RIGHT BY THE COMMUNITY!
Once in a while—but not too often—grassroots activists, government agencies and elected officials join together to support the public interest, and wind up with a happy result.
That has been the 30-year history of the Archives building adventure, which culminated recently in protecting eight community non-profit organizations from a rent increase that would have been the death knell for most of them.
Providing low-cost rentals to the non-profits was part of an arrangement that goes back almost 30 years—between the city and state on the one hand, and Rockrose Development Corporation on the other.
In the late '70's, the Federal government turned over the Archives building at Christopher and Greenwich Streets (originally a storage house for imported goods awaiting customs clearance and later a post office) to New York state and city.
The block-long site was opened to competitive bidding and Rockrose eventually won out.
The developer was given a 99-year lease and was required to provide funding for several projects in the public interest:
*Financing the Landmarks Conservancy to help architecturally significant buildings throughout the city that needed funding to maintain viability.
The agreement called for a $4.5 million contribution to the Conservancy plus a percentage of gross rentals over a ten-year period.
*Capital contributions to projects within the Community Board Two district.
Since the government still owned the property, Rockrose did not have to pay any sales tax on materials bought to build its luxury rental operation. The savings in tax money would go into a fund to help capital community projects. CB2 would make recommendations to state and city agencies in distributing the funds.
*Rockrose should make available, at below market value, space in its basement and lower floors to provide rentals to non-profit operations in cultural and social service endeavors who had very limited financial resources.
Rockrose has fulfilled its obligations on the first two commitments with millions going to the Conservancy to restore landmarked buildings.
Its funding of community projects was more complicated. Converting the structure into a luxury residence with 479 apartments took many years and the money flowing into the Archives Fund for community use took as long.
CB2 devoted hundreds of hours between the early '80's and 1990 interviewing applicants who were anxious for a piece of the pie.
All told, the contributions to more than 100 community projects—including social service organizations, parks, educational and health institutions—rose to $1.6 million.
The state and city agencies, Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC) and Economic Development Corp. (EDC), respectively, funded all of CB2's recommendations and made sure the money was spent properly.
CB2 faced one difficult diplomatic issue during the life of the Archives Committee. One year, three community churches asked for funding. One wanted a roof repaired, another wanted an elevator installed and a third asked for funds to restore a building damaged by fire.
Separation of church and state came into play. No funding could be given to a religious operation for a permanent structural improvement. None of the church requests qualified for funding and each received the same "we're terribly sorry" letter.
Rockrose was never enthusiastic about the below market rentals for non-profits . Having to rent space at below market levels has never been attractive to developers.
But the arrangement went into effect some 25 years ago ,when Rockrose agreed to charge the non-profits only 80 percent of market value. Market value at the time for the alloted space was $5 a square foot, so the non-profits were to pay $4 a square foot.
Fast forward to the fall of 2008. Rockrose informed the non-profits that the old agreement had expired but rental would still be less than current market.
Current market value, Rockrose informed the non-profits, had climbed in 25 years and now stood at $25 a square foot. Rockrose agreed to the earlier 20 percent discount, which would bring rentals to $20 a square foot—an increase of 500 percent over the original arrangement.
Four financially limited theatre groups are among the eight non-profits in the Archives building. One, Wing Theatre, said its rent would climb from $1500 a month to $7500; an impossibility.
The non-profits appealed to CB2 for help and the board took action.
In a resolution prepared by its Zoning Committee, CB2 noted "the non-profit tenants stated it would be impossible to absorb such an increase at once."
CB2 concluded that the proposed increase would be "unfair and unacceptable," and made clear the non-profits "are important to the community." The proposed increase, the board said, would force non-profits into "closure or relocation." ESDC, the state agency which still owns the site, was asked to work with Rockrose to work out a rental arrangement "in the spirit of the original agreement."
And that's what happened!
The elected officials, led by Council Speaker Chris Quinn, met with ESDC and EDC representatives and the tenants. The state agency told Rockrose the base rent of $4 should be maintained, and approved a three per cent annual rent increase to cover inflation. Rockrose said okay.
The arrangement prompted Quinn to hail the results:
"It is all too familiar a story in the Village to hear about longtime neighborhood fixtures being forced out because they can no longer afford to stay in the communities they made great."
The proposals made by Rockrose, she added, would have been "a death sentence" for the non-profits.
Aside from the four theatre groups, the non-profits included one group supporting LGBT interests, another offering a literary art service, and a third providing help for recovering drug addicts.
By far the largest tenant, with 15,000 square feet, is Village Center for Care, which focuses on helping the elderly, particularly those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
As for Rockrose, no one should shed a tear over its agreement to accept the $4 base.
Its studios, which it calls "loft-like duplexes," rent for $3800 to $4500 a month. One bedrooms go for $4900 to $5700, according to its own listings. The company does $40 million a year in sales. And the Archives building rooftop offers a panoramic view of the Hudson and the city, reflected in the pricing of its rooftop apartments.
Many projects involving cooperation between community and government flounder or whither away. So when that collaboration works in the public interest, we can all feel a little better about our society—at least for the moment.