Milton Bolton, the president of the tenants association at Prospect Plaza, points to plans for what will take the place of the high-rise housing project in Brownsville. It was emptied in 2002 for what was supposed to be a renovation and now will be a demolition.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Milton Bolton, the president of the tenants association at Prospect Plaza, points to plans for what will take the place of the high-rise housing project in Brownsville. It was emptied in 2002 for what was supposed to be a renovation and now will be a demolition.

For the better part of ten years, the three empty towers of Prospect Plaza have loomed above Ocean Hill Brownsville. Most of their windows are shattered. Wind and rain whistle through the hallways, feral cats have taken over one of the buildings and pigeons roost in the others. More than 300 units of public housing in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and not a soul in them.

Tenants in Prospect Plaza, a New York City Housing Authority complex of 12- to 15- story apartment buildings, were removed in 2002 to make way for a major rehabilitation, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI program.

But the renovations never happened. Instead NYCHA announced in February that after years of inaction and the financial failure of the firm hired to do the gut rehabilitation, the development was now so deteriorated it needed to be torn down. It is the first time New York City is demolishing an entire high-rise public housing development.

In the towers’ place, the housing authority envisions a series of smaller privately-owned apartment buildings catering to low-income residents. But only 80 of the replacement apartments will be actual public housing.

To Milton Bolton, president of the still-extant Prospect Plaza Tenants Association, the new ideas don’t make up for old failures. He and other former tenants distrust NYCHA’s motives for the development. He thinks the apartments that were vacated by 365 families in 2002 were plenty liveable—that after years of neglect they could still be rehabilitated, if NYCHA were actually interested in bring back public housing tenants.

“It’s all about a bait and switch. This is what [NYCHA] is doing. They promise you the world but at the same time they say, ‘I’m only going to give you a line,'” he says.

He wants the authority to honor the plan tenants agreed to when they were removed from their homes: tenant management of the buildings, a career training initiative, an economic incubator to help small businesses set up shop on the perimeter of the NYCHA site, a day care facility and major community center.

“They said ‘We’ll renovate it. We’ll enlarge it.’ We weren’t supposed to be losing units,” Bolton says.

A mixed record

NYCHA’s record at Prospect Plaza is one neither of unbridled success nor abject failure. Of the 37-owner occupied houses built adjacent to Prospect Plaza as part of the HOPE VI plan in 2005, only one was bought by a former tenant, although 32 of the owners are former tenants of other public housing developments, according to NYCHA. The low- and moderate-income rental housing finished in 2009 as part of the HOPE VI plan includes 150 units. Forty-five are set aside for Prospect Plaza and other public housing residents. But they rely on the Section 8 program, which has suffered from budget cuts and uncertainty.

Widely praised as a life-saver for severely distressed public housing, HOPE VI has also been devastating to the supply of such housing. Between 1992 and 2006, 100,000 units of public housing across the country were lost because of the program, according to a 2008 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

That’s because while HUD gave money to knock down housing, it didn’t fully fund rebuilding. And while the apartments and houses that typically replace big towers like Prospect Plaza are targeted to working poor, they typically do not serve the poorest people—those who needed public housing to begin with.

That need is real in Brownsville. More than a third of households here have yearly incomes below $18,000. And nearly two thirds take in less than $38,000, making many people too poor to qualify for private affordable housing.

The plan, take two

In June NYCHA convened a three-day conference at which 50 former residents, neighborhood people, elected officials and members of community groups such as The Good Old Lower East Side and Community Voices Heard talked about what they want to see at the new Prospect Plaza. The vision includes a community center and park, a large supermarket and space for independent businesses. NYCHA staff showed evident pride and excitement as they described residents contributions and thoughtful interactions at the conference.

“We would like to be as close as possible to the community plan,” says Patricia Barrera, NYCHA’s senior deputy director for development, adding that the agency’s Request for Proposals on redeveloping the site will be deeply informed by the re-visioning conference. “It’s very simple. They want a development that fits in with the neighborhood character.”

In the past ten years 2,000 units of low-rise affordable housing have been built in Brownsville, Barrerra says, making the high-rise towers seem out of place.

“It’s a very different neighborhood than it was in 1999, when this process began.”

Residents will still have some time to wait. NYCHA expects to issue the RFP for 360 units of affordable housing next February and award the contract by fall 2011. Construction would begin in fall 2012, ten years after Prospect Plaza was emptied. It would then progress in three phases, Barrera says.

And while the NYCHA team working on Prospect Plaza is energized by their interactions with the community, there are no promises that the plan articulated at the re-envisioning conference will actually come to fruition.

“There are still pieces and challenges that we have to work through. People want an open park. How will that work? Who will maintain it? Should we be talking to the Trust for Public Land?,” says Ilene Popkin NYCHA’s assistant deputy general manager for development. She raised similar reservations about a community center and small businesses. But the public input “is definitely the bones and framework” of the planning process, she insists.

Suspicions acknowledged

The replacement units will all be subsidized housing, set at 60 percent of area media income, Popkin says. And while NYCHA won’t run or manage the buildings, they will have a long term interest in them, whether though a deed restriction or a lease or other agreement with the eventual developer, she adds.

The precise number of public housing units in the new development will depend on how financing is structured. With $17.8 million of the original HOPE VI money left, NYCHA can afford to have 80 units built. The rest of the development will be financed with some combination of tax-free bonds and tax credits, in conjunction with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Housing Development Corp. Those crucial partners were not involved in earlier Prospect Plaza plan, Popkin says.

This time the plan is going to be executed, Popkin says, acknowledging that plenty of former residents and neighbors are suspicious and weary.

“I think there is a general concern about demolishing towers. I think what we need to say is we understand that we have to earn their trust,” she says. “There is a commitment to seeing it happen and to make transparency and responsiveness priorities.”