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From Mars Bar to Jupiter 21

Wall Street Journal
April 30, 2013
By Josh Barbanel

In the old days, long before a neighborhood of brick apartment buildings rose up all around them, Gretchen Green and her neighbors put up with drug addicts and garbage-strewn streets in a derelict slice of the East Village.

Now, Ms. Green, a retired manager at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, and some fellow longtime residents in the older, wilder East Village, are buying apartments and are about to move into one of those gleaming new buildings. The price: $10 per apartment.

A new 12-story residential building at First Street and Second Avenue

They used to live above or next to the graffiti covered Mars Bar on East First Street and Second Avenue, a now-defunct dive bar known for its grungy, punk-rock ethos. Now they will contend instead with walnut plank floors, built-in washers and dryers, a “serenity garden” and a rooftop lounge with a wet-bar and showers and outdoor screening room.

“We didn’t even have a bodega to buy food; now we have Whole Foods,” said Ms. Green, 67 years old. “It is a different population now.”

In an unusual blend of old and new New York, nine long-term tenants of two small buildings on Second Avenue struck deals to buy cooperative units in a new 12-story building, where they will share hallways with 51 mostly young renters—many new to New York and unfamiliar with the neighborhood’s history.

The bulky new building will be known as Jupiter 21, and will feature a model of the planet Jupiter hanging in the lobby.

Donald Cappocia, a principal of the developer, BFC Partners, along with partners Joseph Ferrara and Brandon Baron, said the name was chosen because “Jupiter follows Mars”—in the order of the planets.

Rents on the building’s market-rate apartments, including some with twin terraces, will range from $3,000 to $10,000 a month, Mr. Cappocia said. Some higher-floor apartments have views from the Manhattan Bridge to the Empire State Building.

The site was part of the huge Cooper Square urban-renewal area assembled by the city decades earlier that remained stalled for many years.

Ms, Green’s old three-story building was built as a “moving pictures” theater, according to a 1913 permit, by Louis Minsky, part of the Minsky burlesque family. At one point it had a restaurant and a pool hall upstairs. The top floor was used as an off-off Broadway theater in the 1950s.

In the mid-1970s, the city turned control of the building over to Ellen Stewart, the late founder and driving force behind La MaMa, on the condition that she rent it out to artists, Ms. Green said.

A Greek-born sculptor occupied one apartment, and Ms. Stewart and Ms. Green lived in others. Another tenant was John Vaccaro now 83, who was a founder of a group known as the “Playhouse of the Ridiculous” that flourished in the late 1960s and ’70s.

Mr. Vaccaro said he spent his own money to turn his bare loft with a hot plate into a finished space, but paid a very low rent, which rose over time from $50 a month to $294 a month.

Next door, there were five more occupied apartments in a city-owned building where residents paid no rent at all, but paid dues to cover shared expense, including legal costs of fighting off evictions, according to Andrea Legge, an artist who has lived there for decades.

“We always claimed it was abandoned with people in it,” she said.

Empty buildings in the urban-renewal area were a magnet for drug dealers and garbage collected in the surrounding streets, according to tenants. “There was nothing romantic about it,” Ms. Legge said. “There were needle junkies in the basements. It stunk and it was all so over.”

At dusk in the 1980s Ms. Green said she could sit out on her fire escape and count the glow of “60 crack pipes.”

Beginning a decade or so ago, the city finalized plans for much of the area, including a series of brick rental buildings put up by AvalonBay Communities Inc. AVB -0.08% One of the new buildings rented space to a Whole Foods store on Houston Street.

At about the same time, the city offered to sell Ms. Green’s building to the tenants for $650,000. The tenants then brought in Mr. Cappocia, who formed a partnership with them to buy the building.

He agreed to work with them to renovate it, build on top of it or replace it.

Next door, Ms. Legge’s building was turned over to a housing group, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, to help them renovate the building and turn it into a co-op.

But both plans moved ahead slowly, Mr. Cappocia said, until a few years ago when the city set up a special zoning rules that allow for a bonus in the permissible square footage of buildings that include affordable housing. That in turn made the new building feasible.

When Mr. Cappocia offered to buy air rights over Ms. Legge’s building, the tenants agreed to let him demolish their building in exchange for limited-income co-op apartments in Jupiter 21, with strict limits on maintenance costs.

Now, the new building is about to open, and the old-time tenants are about to return to the site. Ms. Stewart died in 2011, and her granddaughter, Mia Yoo, now the artistic director at La MaMa, will be purchasing the apartment, Mr. Capoccia said.

Ms. Legge said the apartments she saw were beautiful, with good light and views of Second Avenue, but she also has mixed feelings about it.

“I am grateful they didn’t give us lowlifes apartments in the back,” she said. “I feel hugely entitled to this luxury apartment, but I feel completely unworthy of it at the same time.”