TWO GIRLS IN skimpy white bikinis soak their feet in the fountain at the center of the Oval. Nearby, a couple of muscular guys casually flex as they toss a football back and forth for the admiring girls. Another young woman leans back against the fountain’s edge while her small terrier tries to lick her face.
The green lawn is littered with tanning twentysomethings and their picnic blankets, gossip magazines, iPods and BlackBerrys. It could be a sunny photo of a collegiate quad for an admission’s guidebook. But it’s not. We’re looking at the center of Stuyvesant Town’s 61-acre housing complex.
At the edges of the scene are the young parents with blankets and chairs watching their children play tag. And just at the fringes of the Oval’s grassy area—out of easy view of the young interlopers—are the older residents. A few sit on benches, the others in wheelchairs located on a dirt path beside their foreign-born nurses. Here, technology consists of clunky old radios with long antennas. If you listen closely, the hum of classical music or an opera aria fills the air.
This idyllic summertime scene camouflages the grumbling going on. The retirees, some of them who have been living in their rentcontrolled residences since the property opened in the 1940s for returning WWII veterans and their families, suffered through the ups and downs of New York’s bad days and have weathered many a financial crisis. They still recall their wariness when the young professionals began to arrive a decade ago to start families. It seemed like a rejuvenation of the aging population, a new generation coming to take their place.
Nothing seemed to change all that much while MetLife remained the owners of the sprawling East Village complex. Soon after real estate giant Tishman Speyer’s 2006 purchase of Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village for $5.4 billion, the largest real estate purchase in American history, the college kids began to show up. According to many Stuy Town residents, what once was considered a middle-class oasis in the heart of the city has become a dorm overrun by noisy, binge-drinking, pot-smoking, disrespectful college students—who might even use the stairwells as toilets. I guess I’m one of these reviled college kids. I attend NYU and, as of this summer, I moved into Stuy Town with a roommate only to discover how our neighbors love to hate us.
Like others only recently arrived to the city, I knew nothing about Stuyvesant Town. I had no interest in moving into dreary brick buildings that reminded me of the city’s lower-income social housing. After three weeks of searching for apartments in the East Village, we walked into the Stuyvesant Town Leasing Office—which resembles a posh design store or trendy Chelsea fusion restaurant— to speak to a representative. The office has floor-to-ceiling windows, red cube chairs and oversized glossy images of smiling young people sipping coffee and picnicking in front of the fountain. There’s even a magnetic board to let prospective renters play around with possible furniture arrangements and floor plans. As an NYU junior, this wasn’t what I was expecting. It seemed—dare I say?—like a cool place to live.
A young, chirpy brunette showed us a model one-bedroom apartment that had a pressurized wall built in the living room so it could comfortably work as a two-bedroom. The unit had recently undergone luxury upgrades such as granite countertops, new appliances, posh lighting fixtures, a renovated bathroom and brand-new air conditioners. Even with the wall, the living room and both bedrooms were considerably larger and nicer than any apartment we had seen through Craigslist. We would have both a trendy East Village address and be surrounded by trees, green lawns, street hockey and basketball courts. It was the perfect surrounding to sit and study or play Wiffle Ball. Stuy Town felt like the college campus that NYU could never deliver.
Little did the rep know, but she had us at “dishwasher.” Ready to sign a lease, we were then offered two-months free rent (utilities included). Later we were given two $500 American Express gift cards: one for getting a guarantor form ready within 24 hours and the other for being referred by a tenant (in this case, my roommate’s girlfriend who lived in Peter Cooper Village, the sister property).
With these perks, my roommate and I were both saving close to $400 a month when compared to the price of NYU dorms. Plus, we had our own bedrooms. Since moving in we have both referred friends, which means we’ll each receive another $500 gift card. Stuy Town is also now offering a free year’s lease on a Mini Cooper for the tenant that refers the most people. It was clear that Stuy Town was looking to fill apartments and was bending over backward to get us into a unit.
Of the 89 brick towers in Stuy Town, four contain floor-to-ceiling glass sanctuaries on the ground floors. Rebranded Oval Lounge, Oval Film, Oval Study and Oval Kids, the community spaces host art shows, cocktail parties, movie screenings and even have a daycare type service. Access to these centers usually includes a $250 enrollment fee, plus an additional $20-a-month fee (for two people), but also includes a state-of-the-art gym. An additional concierge service that—among other perks—will organize a dog walker and book car service is also available. Now, Sunday farmers’ markets and summer concerts on the Oval have attracted many, including non-residents, to the grounds.
Susan Steinberg, a middle-aged senior marketing manager for an architecture firm, moved in to her one-bedroom Stuy Town apartment in 1980 after she spent two years on the waiting list (it typically took as long as five years before a unit became available). She wasn’t shown her actual apartment before she moved in; she was given an address and a floor plan and told to decide on the spot. All these years later, she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else and jokes she’d only leave Stuy Town “feet first,” but argues she has noticed a deterioration in the property as of late.
According to Steinberg, who is currently the vice president of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, things first began to change after MetLife went public in 2000. “The maintenance staff was no longer quite as helpful,” she says. “They started outsourcing services and then, all of a sudden, we saw that instead of two porters for every building, there was only one.” Now she blames Tishman Speyer for problems of general upkeep, maintenance and appearance of the grounds. For example, the Oval Lawn used to be a hallowed, keep-off-the-grass spot, not for casual recreation. “Everywhere you look, there are problems. I don’t think [Tishman Speyer] understood what it was to be a residential landlord,” Steinberg explains.
On the other hand, my roommate and I have had nothing to complain about since we moved in. Every appliance works, we have no mice and our building is always clean. Once I even woke up to the noise of gardeners planting a flowerbed outside of my window.
Steinberg claims to have seen the effects of the changing housing market first-hand as college students began piling into one-and two-bedrooms in the property. “There’s a lot of tension. It’s a shame,” Steinberg says. “I hate to generalize, but I think a lot of college students are treating it like a dorm and not a real residence. Those who have been living here for a while feel as though they’re not treating things with respect.”
She has also joined an ongoing class action lawsuit against Tishman Speyer and MetLife for improperly de-regulating apartments while they were receiving tax breaks under the city’s J-51 program.
Although Tishman Speyer spokespeople declined to comment for this story, it seems clear that they never intended to retrofit the buildings for college kids. In a struggling real estate environment, however, they are desperate to fill as many vacancies as possible. Despite Tishman Speyer’s massive expenditures upgrading apartments and the grounds with new landscaping and playgrounds, the property is still believed to be between 60 to 70 percent rent stabilized.
The largest disparity can be seen between the rents of these longtime residents versus the newbies. For instance, Steinberg has lived in Stuy Town for nearly 30 years and pays less than $1,000 a month for her onebedroom.The same space, newly renovated, will cost an incoming market-rate tenant roughly $2,500.
Other than those who are currently in litigation against Tishman Speyer, many unhappy tenants have turned to the Stuy Town Lux Living blog to voice their rage about all things Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. The site is a catalog of nightmare stories about rats, bugs, dirty water, trash buildup, crime and even a dubious tale of one college student defecating in a stairwell.The blog—which receives about 26,000 views a month—makes living in Stuy Town seem absolutely hellish.
In a recent comment posted on Lux Living, a user named Totally Tished Off wrote: “What the hell are these ‘students’ actually studying? If these are the ‘professionals’ of the future, then God help us all.They look like the lowest form of life on the planet, and I don’t think they will improve over time.” It’s this sort of vitriol that has added fuel to the anti-collegekid fire. Despite the somewhat aggressive, mean and occasionally vindictive posts, the man behind the blog, who only wants to be referred to as Lux, says he wants to keep it somewhat lighthearted.
“It’s very much like TMZ sort of meets The Daily Show,” explains Lux. He’s an eccentric character himself, with long brown hair and tattoos covering his arms. He wore mirrored aviator sunglasses the entire time we talked in a coffee shop near Stuy Town.
Lux has since moved out of Stuy Town but says he lived there for nearly a decade starting in late 1998 when he was 22. As a young tenant, he was also viewed with suspicion, but he ended up loving the tranquil living conditions.
“I’m very much a city person,” Lux says. “I’m not somebody who wanted to bring the suburbs here with me. I very much love the city, but it was nice to have this spacious apartment right off of First Avenue.”
After Tishman Speyer’s purchase, Lux was recuperating from cancer treatment in his apartment and became aggravated by the non-stop partying around him. “The kids who were living upstairs from us when I lived there would party any Saturday night from about 8 until 2 in the morning, go out and then come back in at 4 and go until late morning.”
Lux’s blog may have attracted an angry mob that appears ready to burn down the doors of any tenant registered at a college, but others caution that this anonymous forum has sensationalized the problem.
Joey Arak, 28, senior editor of the real estate blog Curbed, has lived in Stuy Town for over a year and says he has yet to meet a college student, nor has he experienced any excessive noise problems. He feels the hatred for “college students” on the property is fairly misguided.
“A lot of the time people just see anyone that is under 30 and just assumes that they’re college kids,” he explains. “So they lump everyone into that same kind of demographic.”
In fact, the only “official” relationship between NYU and Stuy Town has been the 95 apartments the university rents out for graduate students. Next year there will only be 70 apartments, according to John Beckman, a spokesperson for NYU. Beckman says that, despite Stuy Town and many other apartment buildings reducing rent, he hasn’t seen a steep exodus of students moving off-campus even with a slight increase in the price of dorms.
Although it’s difficult to gauge how many of the new tenants are NYU students, or from other area colleges since no official records are kept on the matter, just visit the first of the month as the Stuy Town roads are filled with trucks from pressurized wall companies. It’s like a college move-in day.
A market-rate tenant who works in visual marketing and who prefers not to be named, moved in to a Stuy Town apartment three years ago and says the subsequent influx of college students has made her dream of raising a family in Stuy Town impossible. When two 21-year-old students—one from NYU, the other from Fordham—moved in to the apartment below hers, she could no longer take it. “The apartment turned into a university quad, and the type of people that go in and out are the source of the problem more so than the people that live there,” she explains.
The students were so loud and disruptive that the tenants living below them—who had lived there for 11 years—moved out, according to this tenant. She says she’d like to do the same but is stuck in her lease. The noise problems have led her to make 25 formal complaints to management, and she has even had her doctors call them to plead her case. All the while, the parties and noise continue.
“I think they’re completely oblivious to the tension they have created,” she says. Similarly, Darcy Tucker, who works in non-profits and moved to Stuy Town in 2004, has seen her hopes of setting down roots in the complex dashed by the college party scene that is surrounding her apartment.
“They started moving in all around us, next to us, under us, across the hall. We didn’t know our neighbors.” She claims there was pot smoke coming out of the room across the hall. “In the middle of the night they’d have the music on and all their friends over,” says Tucker. “The neighbors don’t talk to you, it feels like a frat house.”
Tucker is also frustrated that management will not re-negotiate her rent (her one-bedroom has increased from $2,200-$3,450 over four years), but is willing to give college students two months free rent and does not require a security deposit. Also, Stuy Town now boasts luxury amenities, but it is also courting college students who probably won’t pay for them. For many tenants it’s more than the noise problems, pot smoking or even rent hikes. Students are not saying “hi” or holding doors for their neighbors. They are ultimately concerned that a transient community is replacing the neighborhood feel, with students bound only by their one- or two-year leases.
The housing development that was built to honor soldiers and their families is losing its community appeal. I can sympathize with the loss of community character that these longtime residents feel, and I readily admit that I was certainly just looking for an alternative to dorm life, but somehow it’s followed me to Stuy Town. But maybe the best thing to do is stay put: As the housing market invariably rebounds and rents increase, many of these students will most likely be forced out of the property. It will then be up to those survivors to decide the next chapter in Stuy Town’s history.