Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Are We Being Played?

Posted by Julie Zando-Dennis

Unveiled at the June 7, 2010 Easton Planning Commission meeting was a sketch plan of the proposed 9-floor apartment building to the 600 block of Northampton Street. In attendance was the developer Ari Schwartz, who explained that the project would attract young professionals just out of college, as well as empty nesters.

Some in attendance were deeply skeptical. After the presentation of the plan, one community member was convinced that Mr. Schwartz intended to rent the units as Section 8 low-income housing, and "nothing in the law could stop him." This community member's concerns are quite legitimate. According to a Coalition for the Homeless report entitled "Homeless Families At Risk: Hazardous Conditions in the Housing Stability Plus Program," Mr. Schwartz is identified as a “Major Problem Owner” and known to New York City community and tenant organizations as a "notorious slumlord."

According to the report, 11 of Mr. Schwartz's 300 properties have logged 2,407 violations, including 463 "immediately hazardous" violations. One resident reported that upon moving in there were no locks on the doors to the unit or the building, a broken intercom, and no guards on the windows in her first floor unit.

At the Easton Planning Commission meeting, Mr. Schwartz defended his record, explaining that he purchases dilapidated buildings with the intention to gentrify them. He said that the buildings he buys have many pre-existing code violations, but that once in control, he remedies the violations, forces out disruptive or unpaying tenants, and makes improvements to the buildings. In 2001, Schwartz commented to the Village Voice, “That's what I do. I make people's lives better.”

What to believe? Not sure at this juncture. If Mr. Schwartz is sincerely making a commitment to invest $9 million in a grocery store and middle income housing, as he professes, then the City of Easton should work to support him. We should gather more facts, not jump to conclusions, and proceed with caution.


michael molovinsky said...

if mr. schwartz has only 11 tagged buildings out of 300, i would think you could accept his explanation. fyi, nobody in the private sector builds new for section 8, unless they're tied to the public grant machine. he should probably invest his money somewhere else, where he would be received with more respect.

noel jones said...

Julie, thanks for the info. I was at a different public meeting last night and then later at a restaurant and heard many residents voice concern over this project. Some are concerned about the height of the proposed 9-story building. Others are concerned about parking, should all those residential units be filled. Others are worried about Ari Schwartz's reputation in Brooklyn.

All the more reason that concerned residents should make it a priority to attend public meetings as the project moves forward so that their concerns can be addressed. Dennis Lieb, who sits on the Planning Commission, issued a direct invitation to the public for this meeting on this blog--I, unfortunately, was stuck at the office until 7:30, but I will make every effort to be at the next one.

I hope that other residents besides Julie were able to make it out last night, and trust that Dennis will let us know when the next public meeting regarding this building is slated.

So far, I have say that I am a) very excited about the idea of a real grocery store in our neighborhood, especially since the poll on this blog last year showed it as the #1 desired new business by residents, but b) I am concerned with this new information as to Mr. Schwartz's reputation in NYC, and think that parking is a serious issue that must be addressed for any builder proposing 44 new residential units--hopefully parking for the vehicles of those residents is being taken into account.

Dennis, if you're reading, it would be great if you could address the parking question in a comment.

Anonymous said...

Doesn,t Mr. Lieb have a conflict. I am told that he represents Mr. Schwrtz and that he has even tried to acquire additional properties for him. Also, wasn't MR. Lieb against the Riverwalk project because of ts height? Seems like a conflict that high rises belong in downtowns, not in neighborhoods. I would need some strong reasoning to know why this couldn't be a five story building. I also don't like the surface parking lot next to it. Too many missing buildings.

Anonymous said...

We should be able to get a decent grocery on the ground floor of an existing building or by building a box for one on vacant land. Lets beat the drum for this with the city and all. Come on, how hard can it be. Its time the city focused on helping us with this.

9 stories is out of character with this historic residential neighborhood. Very nice existing rental units have been sitting empty month upon month in the West Ward. Young couples, New Yorkers come look - but they see no amenities (no grocery) Makes no sense to build more of this till we make what we have work. How is downtown doing with its rentals marketed to the same consituency? The West Ward's existing residential real estate is what we should be marketing - homes to families large and small who have a cultivated taste for well built historically detailed non plasticized homes. A near by grocery store would help market these treasures.

Joanne said...

I was there but had to leave in the middle of Mr. Schwartz's answers. Overall, I like the idea of efficient, affordable housing w/ included grocery store. Courteous, diligent review of Mr. Schwartz's background and motives would be a logical next step. How can this project benefit the West Ward?

Nikkita said...

I'm all for a grocery store in the west ward... along with a few banks would also be nice. But 9 stories should not be part of the plan.

It would look as out of place as that huge highrise on Eaton Ave in Bethlehem...NOT a good idea

noel jones said...

Anon 11:38am - check the Godzilla post--Dennis says there that he hasn't recused himself because there is nothing to vote on yet. Dennis is a stand up guy and I'm sure, will recuse himself if the project does come to a vote, else he wouldn't have mentioned it.

But thanks for checking--it's this kind of information sharing and discussion that the blog is about!

Julie Zando-Dennis said...

Mr. Schwartz also said that he would not build new for Section 8. He said that he couldn't convert to Section 8, and unfortunately there was no follow up question as to "why?" Anybody know what code/legal/economic reasons might prevent him from converting to Section 8?

Also, I don't believe the report stated that ONLY 11 of Mr. Schwartz's buildings had violations. The 11 were highlighted in the report. As Mr. Schwartz explained at the meeting, ALL his buildings have serious violations went he buys them. After which, according to Mr. Schwartz, he proceeds to clean them up.

Let's give this project a chance to evolve as a more concrete plan. The unveiling of the sketch plan is very early in the process.

Anonymous said...

9 stories isn't a problem; walnut st behind it goes up a hill and has 4-5 storey buildings, so it will be close in height to those (btw, I've been in one of those-cockroach infested!) and the vacant 'hotel' at the 5 points of walnut/6th/northampton is like 5-6 stories also isn't it?
seriously people, the block is all abandoned derelict buildings and empty lots, why not support this? let the NYC guy come in, obviously no local developers have shown any interest!

Anonymous said...

yes the Mt. Vernon ids 5 or 6 stories but it is also at the top of the hill. The real issue I don't think is the height although I personally feel that 6 would be perfect. The issue is 42 units of at market rate apartments. Will they fill up in that area? Or will the developer have to resort to Section 8 solely because he needs to fill the units. I say he needs to agree to place a deed restriction on the new building that it never goes to subsidized housing of any sort.

I have nothing against subsidized housing but for Easton we have more than our share. We need individuals with disp[osable income.

noel jones said...

Anon 9:54--great points. I'm very excited about the grocery store, but very concerned about where all those residents will park. Did anyone who attended the meeting hear discussion on the parking issue?

Ryan Champlin said...

I've seen the plans for the project, and unless something has changed in the past month, resident parking is provided for within the structure on the first level (maybe 2). As for me, I know that I would strongly consider living there because I wouldn't need a car, or at least not more than one, for me and my family. It's urban living, though on a small scale, and that's what we young'ens are looking for.

Yes, it's a bit out of character for the block, but maybe it will set a good trend of new urban buildings in that area. Overall, there are too many upsides of the project to not support it; but, alas, I don't live in beautiful Easton, so my opinion doesn't much matter.

Dennis R. lieb said...

I am going to be posting my own feelings onthe project soon.

Some chosen responses to the comments so far:

Michael M...just for the record, Mr. Schwartz doesn't own 300 buildings...Three hundred units spread over multiple buildings possibly. That was an error in the reporting. The issue of violations will be taken up in my later post but your point about respect being shown on someone's first visit to the Planning Commission is well taken.

Noel...parking can't be addressed in a quick comment due to it's convoluted and mis-understood nature - especially among non-planners. I will try to simplify this in my post.

Anon@11:38am...I'll be to the point. I have nothing to recuse myself from. If you were at the meeting you know that this was a sketch plan review. That means no approvals were requested or was simply the Commission's and public's first chance to see the proposal and react so we can work towards a better project. I'll address your other issues of height and parking lots later. As for a "rumour" of me showng him other properties. No shit - I'm a real estate agent. That's my job. If you want to insinuate some kind of unappropriate action on my part, put your name on it and we'll have a discussion.

Anon@3:58pm...I took the concept for financing a grocery store in Easton via grants from The Food Trust to our former mayor five years ago. He had no interest. I've spent 3.5 years doing it myself.

Just "building a box" for a grocery store or "putting it in an existing building" are simple solutions to complex programming problems for the person developing or managing a grocery store. The previous grocery building locations in Easton are currently unavailable or demolished. The new zoning requires mixed uses downtown - not single purpose, low-rise buildings like the ones RiteAid, McDonalds and the new Southside CVS and Dunkin Donuts have mired us with in the past.

I have no intention to insult you but the "simple solution" doesn't exist or we'd have done it by now. Your other issues about what is viable in height, historic renovation, etc on that block will be addressed in my own post.

Nikkita...on building height: Does the Alpha Building at ten stories look out of place in Center Square, where nothing else is more than five? Think about that seriously.

Anon@9:54am (and Noel again)...Parking and density seem to be misunderstood concepts. This city has lost 10,000 residents since the mid 1950's. This was do to de-densification, removal of the resident base downtown and at least a fifty percent increase in surface parking lots. We demonized density and embraced the automobile culture as our savior. Are we better off?

We better start realizing that you get what you advertise for so we better start advertizing for, building for and attracting more mid-income people who want compact, decent living quarters within walking distance of everything and are willing to aschew excessive car ownership.

This is what I hope evolves out of our project over time and sets the new standard for how the city develops. It is obvious to me that this topic needs to be developed in multiple posts over time. I will put a series together and release them in sequence when complete. There are no immediate plans for quick approvals of this project. It will go as smoothly as the public allows it to.


Anonymous said...


Re: conflict of interest,

I, personally think that you do have a conflict. Am I right? Are you right? It does not matter. The appropriate action for you to take is to ask a solicitor for a written opinion or an ethics board for a written opinion and abide by the opinion. Then you will be in the clear. My opinion does not matter because it does not govern your actions. Similarly, your opinion does not matter either because it cannot protect you if you are a target of a complaint. Protect yourself and ask for guidance. Even if you are given bad or wrong advice, you are in the clear because you asked for guidance.

Cathy said...

The Alpha building is in the downtown. Thats not primarily residential as the West Ward is. Also, in the area of the proposed structure, there are views all around from places on the hills and from out of residential windows that would be blocked and dominated by such a structure. There is Pine Alley which has never lost its charm for many despite drug dealers. There is Dutchtown Park which has great potential as a passive park. This area would be shadowed and over shadowed by such a structure wouldnt it? I think if we had a grocery store more people would move into the West Ward. I dont get any sense of improvement to our culture through the employment of urban planners and designers and the big bucks of developers. How did it use to happen? How did Easton originally happen? Was it developers and urban planners/designers? People according to Christopher Alexander will create their own urban design piece by piece. We need people and businesses to inhabit the empty spaces we already have. Dennis can you tell me why everybody in planning and architecture seem to revere Christopher Alexander but they dont pay any attention at all to what he really says? I will look forward to seeing a drawing of the proposed structure - perhaps I just cannot properly visualize it without such an aid. But these are my concerns mostly with respect to its height.

Ryan Champlin said...

Alexander and Jane Jacobs recognized the importance and value of strategic intermixing of new and old buildings. Otherwise, the entire building stock will eventually become too old and the whole city will die. Granted, 9 stories is a little outside of a perfect fit for the neighborhood, but the idea is a good one.

Urban planners have always existed, with or without a job title and salary. Rome was planned, as was Philadelphia, as was DC, as was Easton. Without a plan and the planners behind it, you get Route 22 running straight through downtown Easton... in which case, you have no Northampton Street to debate how to improve. Not that planners are perfect, but any improvement in your neighborhood over the past several years can be attributed to your residents first and your planners second.

Cathy said...

What of the idea do you think is "good" Ryan?

Also, "less than perfect" seems like an understatement to one such as myself who respects and values the somewhat crumbling almost European ambience of that area. Based on that liking I invested in the area and really don't care to have my assets cast into darkness due to a nine story structure. During the time that I have lived and rented out as a landlord there I have had many many many people marvel at the ambience and the houses just as I do. What diminishes this area and makes it look like crap is the persistence illegal unsafe activity and the trash.

I agree new buildings are necessary. Also spaces empty of buildings and allowed to be green are necessary to humans health. Research is coming out daily on this.

Whose idea was Rt 22? Sincerely, I always thought that was a result of professional decision making.

A big study was done several years ago (was it the Brookings Institute?) it said Easton should market its excellent existing housing stock as the best strategy for revitalization. I think CACLV's green efficiency programs are a step in the recommended direction. But there need to be other amenities to "market" the stock. Is there no business person in the world who can see how to make a grocery store make money in the West Ward of Easton (or even in the whole of Easton evidently?) Maybe its time residents motivate toward a food co-op.

Anonymous said...

Families who use food stamps end up shopping in the overpriced deli cigarettes and lottery stores which must be the mainstay of Eastons economy along with the bars. Judgemental people think its their choice but its by force BECAUSE they dont have cars. Fresh food is not just about types who take surveys on this blog. Not taking surveys on this blog are poor people who have no choice. This exploitive situation squanders public money and is an embarrassment evident to all those "good families" who come circling through thinking about renting or buying in Easton and decide to just keep moving. If a town cant take care of the people that are already in it why should a family with choices choose it?

Anonymous said...

one of the first things that they look at for their kids is recreation and if recreation activities are equal and available to all. When they see that they are not, they move on.

noel jones said...

Anon 8:06pm--with regard to "Not taking surveys on this blog are poor people who have no choice."

This is absolutely true and has been emphasized on this blog along the way. Poor people can't necessarily afford computers, nor a monthly internet access bill, so readers and commenters on this blog only represent the opinions of Easton's middle class.

I agree with most of your post, but lose you here:

"This exploitive situation squanders public money and is an embarrassment evident to all those "good families" who come circling through thinking about renting or buying in Easton and decide to just keep moving."

Not sure what you're referring to when you say, "this exploitive situation squanders public money"--are you referring to project under consideration, and if so, how does that fit in with the rest of what you're offering about the lack of good stores within walking distance for lower-income families?

Ryan Champlin said...


I understand your concerns about the new development having a negative impact on your investment. This is always a genuine concern whenever new development occurs, especially when that new development contains multi-family housing. There's no way of knowing for sure whether a project such as this would be good or bad for your pocketbook, but I would submit that compared to what is on the site currently, it doesn't seem like it could get much worse. In fact, over the long-term, housing located within walking distance of ameneties, such as grocery stores, retain and add to their values to a greater degree than otherwise. Could a better project exist? Sure. But will this project cause you to lose money? Very doubtful.

And to answer your question: "Is there no business person in the world who can see how to make a grocery store make money in the West Ward of Easton?" The answer is: you have one right here who has figured out how to make it work and is very excited to be in the West Ward! Please don't throw the baby out with the bath water because you have concerns about the project's height. You are getting your wish here, just maybe not in the form that you envisioned. If the residents of Easton reject this opportunity, they may not get another.

And finally, as far as a food-coop goes, you couldn't have had a better idea. The more local control the West Ward has over its food options, the better. You'll still likely need a conventional grocery store, but a coop would be a great supplement.

noel jones said...

Ryan, thanks for posting!

I tend to agree and I think this is a very healthy and necessary conversation where residents can exchange concerns and ideas so as to go to the public meetings feeling clear about the input we want to give.

What I am hearing most consistently from neighbors, both on the blog and off, is:

1. they are excited about the possibility of finally having a quality grocery in walking distance
2. they are concerned about the scale of the building as proposed
3. they are concerned about parking for the new residential units

Now, I think that if we all go the next public meeting on this issue together, express these items of support and concern and give the developer a chance to address those concerns, we will be able to have a very productive conversation, and the community will be able to have faith that we can help shape our neighborhood as it develops.