From Community Group to Condo: The Saga of 49 E. Houston and Times Up!
Even among the old New York holdouts to gentrification, 49 E. Houston was a little strange. Not only did the one-story storefront stick out next to nearby remodeled walkups and rising glass facades, but until recently, the grassroots environmental non-profit Times Up! hosted bike repair workshops, political rides and activist meet-ups out of the aging building. The new 49 Houston should be strange too, but in a very different way. The product of real estate maneuvering and architectural ambition, the building will stand 14-stories high, with a cantilevered upper half that will suspend seven of its stories 25-feet above an adjacent walkup.
The ambitious new building provides a visually striking example of the effort to maximize floor space with minimal ground floor space. Hanging seven stories of condo a full 25 feet over an adjacent building has never been tried in New York, and the new building has already stirred controversy at the real estate porn blog Curbed. According to city documents, 49 and 51 Houston are part of the same zoning lot, and an agreement between the owners of the two lots will allow #49 to over flow to the east with its cantilever design.
Amid all the depressing tales of New York City gentrification, just how 49 Houston Street went from community organizing space to condos is a story all of its own.
“It was a real community kind of space," said Bill Dipaloa, the Director of Times Up!. "The space gave a lot. It was the reason a lot of community gardens got saved”
Dipaloa said the group has been getting angry calls about the group’s recent relocations, but wants to challenge treating the move as the all-too-typical gentrification story: “The real story for Times Up! is that for many years, that building was not gentrified” he said.
Times Up! moved into 49 Houston full time after owner Steve Stollman got involved with the group during the 2003 “Bike Summer.” After a little while, he offered them use of the building’s basement to create a ‘bike library’ and educational space for mechanics and workshops. Up until then, Stollman had run his own business out of the storefront, and for many years had allowed other community groups to gather and work in the space. Eventually, the trials of activism and issues with money caught up with Stollman.
“To have a one story building when you could have 12 there—that’s not very viable. I sustained it for 33 years because I didn’t give a fuck.” Stollman said. Eventually, “I got tired of not being able to pay my bills.”
Stollman give Times Up! the heads-up on a possible sale in advance, setting them off on a city wide search for new funding or comparable space that continues today, after an unexpectedly short residence at The Hub bike shop in the West Village.
“For the past two years, we’ve been having weekly meetings to try to save the space” Dipaloa said. “We had to build enough energy to save the space or buy a new one.” That led to a wide range of efforts, including a series of fundraising dance parties, and a search process that turned Times Up!’s cadre of anti-authoritarian bike mechanics and other volunteers into realtors-on-the-prowl for a mixed-use, ground-floor space that might measure up to their digs at 49 Houston.
Running a non-profit group in a decisively for-profit real estate market has left Times Up! in a sort of permanent limbo, a situation that most likely will dog the group for the years to come—not that they're not trying.
Their efforts included attempting a partnership with Science Adventure Camps, a summer camp program that needed to expand, and whose owner, Science Teacher Sarah, was a fan of Times Up!. The partnership has yet to bear fruit for either of the organizations. Twice the groups have found a suitable space, only to have it sold before they could make an offer.
“Whenever we find somewhere cheap enough and centrally located, it tends to get sold within 12 hours” Sarah said. “In any other city, I’m sure these problems would have been solved by now.”