Urban planning and architecture students from around the world who make the requisite pilgrimage to Lower Manhattan to study MetLife’s acclaimed moderate-income developments – Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town – are in for a surprise these days.
A sign that hangs over the management office on Avenue C now announces the availability of luxury rentals. The legendary waiting list of thousands of households has been shredded. The 1947 plaque proclaiming “the vision” by which “families of moderate means might live in health, comfort, and dignity in park like communities” has been taken down, though by whom is an open question. Units that become vacant are taken to market rents as quickly as possible. Since 2002, an estimated 25%, or 2,800 of the 11,216 units of both complexes, have been deregulated.
No one doubts the legality of MetLife’s decision to convert Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town to market-rate housing, but many public officials and housing advocates are dismayed. For example, City Council Member Daniel Garodnick, the chairman of the planning, dispositions, and concessions subcommittee, said, “These annual increases of 25%-26% are going to have a severely destabilizing effect on the community. They’re harsh.”
It may be that the very ordinariness of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village allayed the suspicions of normally alert housing advocates that the owners would take these developments out of rent stabilization. These may be excellent moderate-income projects, but they are far from elegant. A young lawyer, Eric Lipman, who moved into Peter Cooper Village last March, says, “They’re advertising luxury apartments when there’s nothing luxurious about them. No doorman. No gym. No amenities. They put in new fixtures, but nothing super-fancy. Just GE – works fine, but that’s it.”
Mr. Lipman signed a one-year lease for $2,250 a month for a one-bedroom. Since April, he’s been paying $2,800 and is now looking for an apartment elsewhere. “I don’t have a problem with their turning a profit,” he says. “But it’s a cost-benefit matter. I don’t think it’s worth that. And for that kind of money, I’m fairly confident I can get an apartment in a building with a doorman and a gym.”
Despite MetLife’s declared World War II-era sentiment that “a pattern might be set of private enterprise productively devoted to public service,” it may have had a different development strategy from the start.
The company’s traditional investment tactics fared poorly during the Depression, and MetLife concluded that good rental housing would provide a steady, predictable stream of revenue. The state Legislature agreed, and amended the insurance code to permit residential investment, thereby opening up a new channel of financing for New York’s extraordinarily tight housing market.
To achieve the desired revenue, MetLife said it needed tremendous scale and a cleared site. It insisted on the city’s acquiring the entire gashouse district, between 14th and 23rd streets and First Avenue and the FDR Drive, by eminent domain – the forerunner of the urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s.This may have been the first instance, says architect Robert Stern, in which city officials realized that a viable community, like the gashouse district, could flourish in deteriorating physical conditions. They paused briefly, but authorized the condemnation under the Urban Redevelopment Corporation Law of 1939. Although its apartments were targeted at returning veterans, MetLife announced it would not accept applications for its development from black households. Instead, it alleviated some criticism by building another, smaller project in Harlem, the 1,323-unit Riverton.
Historian and planner Lewis Mumford hated Stuyvesant Town, calling it “an unrelieved nightmare” reflecting the “architecture of the Police State, embodying all the vices of regimentation one associates with state control at its unimaginative worst.” When all the apartments were immediately leased, Mumford said New Yorkers had no proper basis for judging the quality, so deplorable were most of their apartments – cramped, sunless, dusty, and garbagy.
Yet over the years, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town have evolved into very attractive, desirable developments. As architectural historian Carol Hershelle Krinsky has pointed out, the construction was sound, the thick walls muffled noise, and the maintenance and security were excellent. Room sizes were adequate in Stuyvesant Town and generous in Peter Cooper Village. The landscaping included so many types of trees and flowers that at least 96 species of birds migrate through. Or, as the “AIA Guide to New York City” notes, the decades-old trees “now soften the early brutality.”
A spokesman for Stuyvesant Town, Richard Shea, refused to comment on any aspect of MetLife’s plans for Stuyvesant Town or Peter Cooper Village.