Why Essex Crossing Is a Model Mega-Development

At the new Essex Market on the Lower East Side, fish heads are sold next to blood-red tuna. Chubby pigs’ feet share a cold case with rippling honeycombs of tripe, not far from a stand offering bespoke Scandinavian smoked salmon. You’ll find sellers of jams and spices, several bakery and coffee stands, but no chains. Two small grocery stores feature fresh vegetables and packaged goods that people who cook rather than reheat would buy.

The city-owned market, which first opened in 1940 and reopened across the street in the spring, is the star in the surprisingly low-drama fruition of one of the longest-running and most controversial redevelopments in New York City history. (In a city known for epic battles over megaprojects, that’s saying something.)

The grand opening of Essex Market in May 2019. The new market’s interior was designed by SHoP Architects. (QuallsBenson)

The market occupies much of the ground floor of the Essex, a 26-story apartment tower clad in two-tone brown panels that is the centerpiece of the 1.9-million-square-foot Essex Crossing development. The Essex is one of four completed buildings in the nine-building project. They rise along Delancey Street, at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

A history of failed plans

Essex Crossing’s epic, $1.7 billion journey began in the misted past of the Robert Moses era—the 1950s, when dense blocks of six- and seven-story tenements, fretworked with fire escapes, were targeted for demolition by the urban-renewal czar. The blocks had housed waves of Jewish and Italian immigrants; later, African Americans and Puerto Ricans moved in. The neighborhood had been among the most crowded places on Earth at the turn of the 20th century, with people living in conditions as squalid as any slum megalopolis existing today.

In the era when “blighted” blocks were cleared by the dozen and displacement was rampant, Moses succeeded in demolishing a 26-acre swath running along the south side of Delancey Street, which would have been shadowed by his elevated Lower Manhattan Expressway had that not been quashed by protests. The demolition of tenements housing some 1,800 low-income families proceeded, but the planned replacement development fell through as Moses’s power waned and opposition grew.

Over decades, rubble-strewn blocks were paved over for parking as redevelopment schemes came and went. Battles among the vying local populations were blamed for the long impasse, but a 2014 New York Times investigation showed that Sheldon Silver, who had become a power in the state legislature (representing the neighborhood for some 40 years), and William Rapfogel, who ran the taxpayer-funded Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, secretly manipulated the development process to assure a continued Jewish voting bloc in the neighborhood in which they both grew up. (Silver was convicted of accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks last year. Rapfogel went to prison for helping to steal $9 million from the council.)

The Bloomberg administration’s Economic Development Corporation led an effort to build consensus around a new plan. Delancey Street Associates won the competition to execute the plan in 2013, with a team capable of fulfilling the wide variety of commitments the city had made to the community in a five-year consultative process. (These commitments were sweetened by zoning that tripled the allowable square footage.) The Delancey partnership includes BFC Partners and L+M Development Partners, both strong in affordable and market-rate housing; Taconic Investment Partners, a specialist in tech office space; the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, with expertise in mixed-income and projects that serve nonprofits; and the Prusik Group, a retail specialist.

“Bloomberg and his team worked with a community task force and got buy-in after 45 years of frustration,” said Isaac Henderson, L+M’s Essex Crossing managing partner.

The road to Essex Crossing

The commitments include offering 561 of the 1,079 total apartments at below-market rates, more than double the usual percentage provided in such “inclusionary” projects. A right to return was established for those displaced by the 1950s demolitions, though eligible residents are likely to be few since so much time has passed.

The master plan, by the architecture firm SHoP, deploys the activities negotiated by the community across sites totaling six acres. These are scattered both north and south of Delancey, amid a melange of dour public-housing slabs, leftover tenements, one-story chain-retail “taxpayer” buildings, and a couple of glass-clad apartment buildings. SHoP didn’t aspire to develop a tidy ensemble, arguably a fool’s errand. It located five residential towers on the largest sites along the south side of Delancey. They have a family relationship in proportion, and in the varied window patterns and metal panels in tones of umber, tan, and bronze (“The neighborhood didn’t want glassy,” said Henderson).

The rich mix of public uses and local services pops up along the intimate side streets rather than pedestrian-unfriendly Delancey, which is filled with vehicles hurtling toward the bridge. Beneath a 14-story tower of 99 units called the Frances Goldin Senior Apartments, Dattner Architects housed a gathering place for older people, family services, community-facility space, a neighborhood medical clinic, and the GrandLo café, which helps develop youth work skills. These are operated by the Grand Street Settlement, a social-services provider founded nearby in 1916.

The clinic on the ground floor of the Frances Goldin Senior Apartments, designed by Dattner Architects. (© David Sundberg/ESTO)
The Park at Essex Crossing by West 8. (© Noah Devereaux)

Across from the Goldin and along quiet Broome Street, the Dutch landscape architecture studio West 8 tucked a wandering path, quiet tree-shaded sitting areas, and a playground into a 15,000-square-foot park. Abutting the park to the south is the Rollins, a 15-story L-shaped slab in umber brick and dark-metal panels, designed by Beyer Blinder Belle. It houses Target and Trader Joe’s stores, catering to neighborhoods to the south underserved by supermarkets and larger discount chains.

West of the Essex, SHoP devised a rippling, tan metal-paneled facade for 242 Broome, a 14-story and 55-unit condo building. It includes a new 40,000-square-foot home for the International Center of Photography, both a museum and a school, a cultural institution selected pursuant to the agreement with the neighborhood.

242 Broome, by SHoP Architects. The building’s folded-aluminum facade is intended to evoke the metal ornament and fire escapes of tenements around the Lower East Side. (Field Condition)

The relocated and expanded market establishes Essex Crossing as a destination that will draw far more than locals, though the exteriors by Handel Architects are so reticent you would hardly know it. It replaces a structure built by the city in 1940 under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who wanted to tidy the chaos of pushcarts that had clogged the tenement streets since the late 19th century. The city brought in local and existing tenants to cater to wide local tastes and spending capacities.

The Prusik Group operates the market for the city, and is building out its own set of stands one level below: the Market Line, opening this fall. The Market Line will extend underground into the base of two adjacent structures still in construction. The next phase will host art galleries, music, and local fashion. The third phase will feature a variety of prepared foods. The Market Line’s improvisatory mix intends to reflect the wealth of creativity in the neighborhood.

Three structures north of Delancey will complete the development. Affordable housing and community services were built first, says Henderson, to demonstrate to the skeptical community that promises would be kept.

Healing scars

For all of the richness of the development, an architectural ambiguity deprives the streetscape of energy. The project components most likely to attract people—the market, the Market Line, a 14-screen movie theater, and the photography center—are treated the same way, fronted by slabs of glass that reveal the activity within only after dark. Why couldn’t these diverse uses express themselves more individually, to convey the wealth of possibilities within?

Essex Market is located at the base of the Essex, a 26-story tower by Handel Architects. (QuallsBenson)

Only the movie theater has a significance presence on Delancey. At the Essex (the exterior by Handel Architects), where Delancey foot traffic is at its thickest, the cramped entrance to Essex Market barely registers. The market and Market Line were intentionally focused to the rear, to draw people along Broome Street from as far away as SoHo. Inside, ShoP sloped up the ceiling of the market (following the contours of the cinema seating above), making space for a daylight-filled dining area and mezzanine and glassed-in teaching kitchen.

The scars of the neighborhood’s long neglect will not heal overnight, but Essex Crossing proposes a gentle pushback to the conventional wisdom that new development only displaces rather than helps meet the needs of lower-income neighborhoods. It is fitting that a project that took so long to realize can be considered a model.

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