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Minnows and Whales

It certainly is a seductive offer. As reported by Matthew Hall in a report on Habitat’s website, residents of 75 Henry Street, a 370-unit co-op in Brooklyn Heights, will be voting early this month on whether they should take the money and sun by allowing a thin, 40-story condominium to go up on property they own. The new tower would cast a permanent shadow on part of the Henry Street building and cause many disruptions while construction is under way. To compensate for these changes, shareholders at 75 Henry are being offered more than $75 million from developers who want to demolish the co-op’s existing retail properties in order to erect the new condo tower.

Across the river in Manhattan, the city is proposing to crack down on abuses at the 1,271 limited-income HDFC cooperatives throughout New York. Many of them were set up in the 1980s and 1990s as a means of turning rundown housing stock – some of it surrendered by landlords to the city in lieu of unpaid taxes – into affordable apartments for the poor.

The problem is that the program has been too successful: residents have worked together as true cooperators to improve their homes and neighborhoods and, in some cases, are ignoring the rules of the road. Although designated as “limited-income” properties – meaning they must sell within state and city guidelines that keep the price affordable for buyers with limited income – Josh Barbanel in the Wall Street Journal reported that, in the last decade, 220 limited-income Manhattan co-ops sold for more than $500,000, with 20 selling for more than $1 million. One sold for more than $2 million. Now, that’s not how I define affordability.

Both of these tales of capitalism squared seem to bring out my inner socialist. I strongly feel that we are our brother’s keeper – that living in a co-op is more than just having a place to hang your hat. Many would probably agree with me, but probably even more would disagree when I assert that when living in a co-op, your reasons for being there are clear: (1) you have a stake in your home; (2) you know and collaborate with your neighbors on improving your home and your neighborhood; and, oh, yes, (3) you want to protect your investment and ultimately turn a profit on your co-op.

Toba Potosky, for one, seems to be on the same page. The board president of Cadman Towers, a co-op next door to 75 Henry Street, told Habitat in December that the proposed condo tower would mean her building would be cast in shadow, adding: “We are very concerned about the impact this proposed development will have, not just on our property, but [on] the community. We already have a shortage of school space. They recently closed Long Island College Hospital,” which is set to be developed into residential condominiums.

Nonetheless, some would say that such construction is good, bringing up the value of the neighborhood – schools, sunlight, and hospitals be damned. But if you’re a bleeding-heart type like me, you say, “Schools, sunlight, and hospitals come first.” In theory, that is. No one has thrown $75 million (or even a portion of $75 million) my way lately, and, frankly, I don’t know how I’d respond if they did. Would I turn down the money?

I don’t know, but the dilemma reminds me of a scene from a fairy tale. For some reason, the protagonist turns up in an underwater room. He looks through a window, and is startled to see giant fish swimming about. The fish are actually small, however, and only seem large because the glass has magnified them. “Minnows pretending they are whales,” he remarks. But, really, when dealing with giant fish or seductive deals, it all finally depends on which side of the glass you are on.

 

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