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Manhattan Plaza

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Subsidized apartments for people in theater professions

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Manhattan Plaza is a subsidized housing project built in the 1970s. Under a unique arrangement, 70% of the buildings’ 1689 apartments are reserved for people who work in the theater, with the rest set aside for various other Hell’s Kitchen residents in need of good housing. Since opening, Manhattan Plaza has fostered a close-knit community that offers its residents many social opportunities as well as host of services including, notably, groundbreaking projects serving the elderly and those with AIDS.

Manhattan Plaza was originally conceived in the early 1970s as a middle class housing development designed to help revitalize Hell’s Kitchen. The builders, Richard Ravitch and Irving Fischer, created a plan for two large apartment towers with a number of amenities such as security, recreational spaces, shops and tennis courts. Construction was halted, however, when the developers realized they would have to charge higher rents than they had first envisioned.

In a lucky coincidence, the towers happened to meet the qualifications for federal Section Eight housing subsidies. These national subsidies, which gave incentives to developers to create affordable housing, kept rents below market rate for low-income residents. With the additional incentive of a new innovation–the underground parking garage that would earn income for the complex–the project seemed sustainable, and building began again in 1974. The apartments opened in 1977.

A builder, Daniel S. Rose, and a theatrical producer, Alexander H. Cohen, made the unusual suggestion that Manhattan Plaza should serve the often financially struggling workers from the neighboring theater district. In order to qualify for subsidized housing as a performing artist, applicants must have earned at least half of their income in the theater, film or television, for the past three years. This formula remains the same as it was in 1977, but by 1978 there was a waiting list. As of 2004, there is even a waiting list for the waiting list, and names are no longer being accepted.

Those who live in Manhattan Plaza are not inclined to leave, for many reasons. Affordability and proximity to the theater district are key, but the sense of community and the tangible social services in the building are just as unique. The first managing director of Manhattan Plaza, Father Rodney Kirk, was largely responsible for the strong sense of community and shared activities that developed here. Under his directorship, which lasted until 2001, tenant meetings became social gatherings, children gained free summer access to the health club’s pool, and flowers alerted residents to a death in their midst. Father Kirk also launched the Staywell Center to help direct seniors to available services and keep them in their apartments. And, in 1985, he and his partner Richard Hunnings created the AIDS Project when they realized that many Manhattan Plaza residents were afflicted with the disease and needed in-home services and visits. Kirk and Hunnings also made sure that those afflicted were still included in the Manhattan Plaza community, and assured them that they would be able to keep their apartments. Ten Manhattan Plaza apartments are still reserved for AIDS patients who are otherwise homeless.

“I think everyone should live this way,” says Mikel Lambert, who lives in a studio apartment in the building. Some residents make it big in television and film or even become famous (in the past, jazz musician Charles Mingus and playwright Tennessee Williams both lived there). The financially successful pay market rents for their apartments, but do not have to leave–in fact, once someone has moved into the building under the performing arts subsidies, they may stay even if they switch to a different type of career. The relative modesty of the apartments–each has no more than two bedrooms–is no sacrifice compared to giving up a strong community. The unique nature of the buildings’ tenants has also launched a number of successful theatrical ventures including Playwrights Horizons.

The Section Eight contract for the complex will expire in the year 2017. Every five years the owners have a chance to opt out of it, if they wish, but so far they have shown no desire to do so. Not only do they get a deal on real estate taxes for running the building the way they do, but as part-owner Irving Fischer points out, the building is not just real estate, it is “a social enterprise.”

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Anonymous Nominator

Important for the diversity of function: partially subsidized housing for artists, along with a health and racket club.

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