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Clash of the Utopias

Franklin Sims, a longtime resident, on a Stuy Town park bench.  

The tenants were not so quickly persuaded. At bottom, what’s happening at Stuy Town is a culture clash, a version of what’s happened in gentrifying neighborhoods across the city. At Stuy Town, many see the Speyers as desecrating the old neighborhood, turning it into a theme park. There’s a heavy dose of nostalgia here that can seem odd to an outsider. “They turned this place into Sherwood Forest!” Al Doyle tells me, pointing to a copse of new trees when I meet him and Roth one bitterly cold afternoon in early December. “From my point of view, Jim and I have been here all our lives, we’re used to the lawns. I could take you over to where we used to ride the sled down. That’s what we’re used to. My taste is,” he says, motioning to another group of trees, “I just don’t like it.”

“They’ve turned many of these buildings into dormitories,” Roth complains (he isn’t joking; both NYU and the New School have taken space there), as we walk past the new glass-encased library. A half-dozen twentysomethings are reading at tables. From a distance, they seem to float inside the windows like a school of fish in an aquarium. Doyle and Roth point out places along the paths where they spent their time as kids. There were the fields where the Catholic kids from Epiphany School played, and the playground up the way was where the Jewish kids shot hoops. We pass by the giant Christmas tree Tishman Speyer installed at the center of the complex. In 2007, Tishman Speyer staged a lighting ceremony and invited a group of Stuy Town’s original tenants to attend. Roth just shakes his head. “It’s a PR deal. They try and make it look like nothing has changed,” he says. “They invite four or five original tenants, their kids, and their grandchildren. They’re portraying this lovely community-family atmosphere. That’s nice, but you look at the picture and you see those grandchildren? None of them will be able to live here. It’s a sham. They’re very good at it.”

Tishman Speyer executives believed their experience managing commercial properties would translate directly to running a massive residential community. “How hard can it be?” one senior Tishman Speyer executive mused in a meeting, according to a person familiar with the conversation. “It’s people in buildings. We do it all over the world.”

Possibly, Rob believed that his menschy, plainspoken man-of-the-people mien would serve him well dealing with tenants. But it’s been harder than it looked. One day this past fall, Rob visited the property to check on the progress of the renovations. Construction crews had recently finished landscaping the grounds. Rob ran into Doyle, the tenant leader, and asked him—“thinking we would finally have something that they would love,” as Rob later put it—what he thought about the new plantings. Doyle complained there were too many trees. “Who could have a problem with flowers, bushes, and trees?” Rob says. “I was flabbergasted.”

To fill unoccupied apartments, Tishman Speyer has been marketing Stuy Town on college campuses to lure recent graduates, who pack themselves by twos and threes into one- or two-bedroom apartments carved up by walls and screens. These residents seem much happier with their circumstances. “I bump into so many people I know all the time, people from high school and college,” says Jennie Berry, a recent Columbia grad who is an equities analyst at Bloomberg. Last spring, Berry moved from Murray Hill with her roommate to a divided one-bedroom at Stuy Town after her previous landlord hiked their rent by 20 percent. “We still have some ancient people living in our building,” she says. “But they don’t call the cops on us or anything.”

Attracting new residents hasn’t been easy. In the summer of 2007, when Tishman Speyer raised rents on the market-rate apartments to $3,055 for a one-bedroom, vacancies spiked from about 150 to about 800, according to sources familiar with the occupancy figures.

In the old days in New York City—the good old days, to many at Stuy Town—a rent-stabilized apartment was an asset not to be parted with, no matter how much your income happened to be or where you spent most of your time. For years, some of Stuy Town’s residents had skirted the rent-stabilization laws, keeping their apartments as pieds-à-terre while they lived elsewhere. (One Michigan newscaster, Jeff Varner, the former Survivor contestant, kept his place for nearly a decade after he moved.) MetLife, the previous owner, practiced a largely hands-off approach to managing the property, for fear of inciting a public-relations debacle. But that’s not an option for Tishman Speyer.

At the weekly staff meetings at the on-site management office, the most important question was, How many rent-stabilized apartments had been recovered? “You would get a daily e-mail if they got a unit back,” a former employee explains. Rob’s team had developed a two-part strategy for making the Stuy Town deal work. They would remove tenants who were illegally occupying rent-stabilized apartments, at one point employing three different law firms in the effort. Tishman Speyer has issued 1,009 nonrenewal notices, totaling 12 percent of the rent-stabilized leases.

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