University Settlement's Houston Street Center: 47 Years in the Making

Aug 29, 2013 | | categories: Celebrations , History

While you can debate the best restaurants, cultural centers and parks in town, there's one great thing about New York City that you can't deny: the diversity of our neighbors. University Settlement has not only been responding to the needs and wants of our neighbors, but also celebrating their diversity since our beginning. One outstanding example of that can be seen in our Houston Street Center, the result of the Cooper Square Committee's Alternate Plan for Cooper Square, a community effort that transformed a once vacant space in the heart of the Lower East Side. So now, as the Lower East Side is on the verge of another new development in the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project, we wanted to remember the positive change that comes when communities unite to meet the needs of our vibrant city. Read below for the complete history, excerpted from our 2006 HSC Gala Opening Celebration booklet.

In 1959, Robert Moses put forth a grand urban renewal plan for the Lower East Side. To eliminate what he saw as urban blight, Moses would level a large swath of the neighborhood, from Delancey Street to East Ninth Street, from Second Avenue to the Bowery, and start anew. His plan would displace nearly 7,000 residents, replacing their homes with middle class housing that only 7% of them would be able to afford.

That same year, Staughton Lynd, a University Settlement Community Worker, went down to City Hall, seeking the help of two urban planners at the Department of City Planning. Where Moses saw urban blight, Lynd saw a vital community. Lynd urged the planners to join with a brewing tenants' right movement to stop Moses, and find a way to preserve and rehabilitate the area, which came to be known as Cooper Square.  

One of those planners was Walter Thabit, who joined with the local activists- including University Settlement- to form the Cooper Square Committee. In 1961, after 100 meetings, the Committee unveiled their Alternate Plan for Cooper Square - a groundbreaking approach to urban renewal and the beginning of an odyssey that has led today, 47 years later, to the opening of the Houston Street Community Center.

To this day, the Alternate Plan is studied as a model of urban planning. Rather than bulldozing the site and dispersing the residents to the four winds, the Plan would preserve those buildings that could be readily renovated, enabling people to stay in their homes. Remaining parcels would be razed to make way for carefully controlled development that would meet the neighborhood's needs - a healthy diversity of housing options as well as some significant space for community-wide use.

The Alternate Plan gained national attention and was widely praised. But it took more than a decade of fierce advocacy by the Cooper Square Committee before the City would sign on. These efforts reached a climax with "Cooper Square on the Warpath" a late 1960s campaign which included community rallies, demonstrations, leafleting- even setting up tepees along Houston Street to dramatize the need for affordable housing. In 1969, Task Force leader Francis Goldin took the podium at a City Planning Commission hearing and refused to yield until there was a vote on the Plan. The Commission refused, and Ms. Goldin and eight others were arrested.

Several months later, in an enormous victory for the community, the Plan was finally adopted. But the fight was far from over: It would take three more decades for the vision it embodied to be realized. During the 1970s, big parcels of land were cleared, only to sit vacant as our efforts were continually thwarted by budget issues, the shifting of government focus to other projects, and continuing struggle to preserve both the spirit and the letter of the Plan.

Inevitably there were many compromises along the way, but, slowly, painstakingly, Cooper Square began to take shape. In the mid 1980s, 146 Section 8 subsidized housing units were built. 150 additional units for seniors were added soon thereafter. These were followed by the country's first homeless housing coops, 22 units in all. And over time, nearly 400 tenement apartments were renovated with full modern conveniences for low-income residents.

By the 1990s, what was left were two key pieces of real estate – one on the north side of Houston Street, the other on the south. Somewhere within these sites, in addition to building more housing, the City would have to make good on its long-time promise to create a meaningful community space. But negotiations between the City and the community had reached an impasse and all progress had come to a halt. So in 1996 the City formed the Cooper Square Task Force to try to reach a consensus. The Task Force included representatives from various City agencies, the Borough President's office, the City Council, Community Board 3, the Cooper Square Committee, and University Settlement Executive Director Michael Zisser.

Over the next several years, the Task Force hammered out an agreement. The sites would hold four rental buildings, with 25% of the apartments set aside for subsidized housing. (That made a total of 1,422 mixed income units built or renovated throughout Cooper Square, of which 888, or 64% were low income- the highest rate of low-income housing on any urban renewal site in the United States). The southern building, to be built first, was to contain the long-awaited, 42,000-square-foot Community Center.

It had always been presumed by the community that University Settlement would run whatever community space was built. But in the end, it was decided to open things up to a competition. In 2000, the City issued a request for proposals from developers, who were asked to partner with a non-profit that would operate the Center; University Settlement was included in half the proposals. However the developer that put forth the highest bid, AvalonBay Communities, had never built such a project in New York City before, and applied without a non-profit partner.

Once selected, AvalonBay sought out University Settlement and the Chinatown YMCA, and asked whether we would be willing to enter into a truly unique relationship, owning and running the center together. The developers were intrigued by this possibility because of the complementary expertise each organization brought to the table. The YMCA offered its long experience running fitness facilities and swimming pools.

The Settlement was chosen because of its deep roots and unwavering dedication to the community. Our job and our commitment is to make the Houston Street Community Center a true communal "living room",  ensuring that every resident from the extremely diverse surrounding neighborhoods has full and ready access to the facility. In the process, our goal is to build connections among neighbors across all socio-economic, cultural, and ethnic boundaries.

For the next three years, Michael Zisser and his partners at the Chinatown YMCA worked to ensure that this promise was fulfilled. We forged an agreement with the AvalonBay team to go above and beyond their contractual obligation and deliver, not just the shell of the building, but a fully-built, state-of-the-art Center, complete with a competition-sized swimming pool, full-court gym, fitness center, classrooms, meeting rooms, dance and aerobic studios and community offices - at a total cost of $14 million. AvalonBay also agreed to give the Center outright to the Settlement and the YMCA to own and operate for the community's use in perpetuity. At the same time, the Settlement and the YMCA developed a detailed legal framework for the unprecedented "marriage" between the two organizations.

Ground was broken for the Houston Street Community Center in the fall of 2003, and construction proceeded apace towards an opening early in 2006. With the great generosity of our many donors, we were able to put the finishing touches on the building, furnish it, and hire a dynamic staff - bringing us to today's gala opening. As we celebrate the fruits of the labor begun 47 years ago, we honor all those whose persistence, dedication and hard work have made this dream a reality for the entire community.

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