Why Essex Crossing Is a Model Mega-Development

By James S. Russell

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With a large share of affordable housing and restrained architecture, the six-acre project seeks to fit into—rather than shake up—New York’s Lower East Side.

At the new Essex Market on the Lower East Side, fish heads are sold next to blood-red tuna. Chubby pigs’ feet share a cold case with rippling honeycombs of tripe, not far from a stand offering bespoke Scandinavian smoked salmon. You’ll find sellers of jams and spices, several bakery and coffee stands, but no chains. Two small grocery stores feature fresh vegetables and packaged goods that people who cook rather than reheat would buy.

The city-owned market, which first opened in 1940 and reopened across the street in the spring, is the star in the surprisingly low-drama fruition of one of the longest-running and most controversial redevelopments in New York City history. (In a city known for epic battles over megaprojects, that’s saying something.)

The market occupies much of the ground floor of the Essex, a 26-story apartment tower clad in two-tone brown panels that is the centerpiece of the 1.9-million-square-foot Essex Crossing development. The Essex is one of four completed buildings in the nine-building project. They rise along Delancey Street, at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

A history of failed plans

Essex Crossing’s epic, $1.7 billion journey began in the misted past of the Robert Moses era—the 1950s, when dense blocks of six- and seven-story tenements, fretworked with fire escapes, were targeted for demolition by the urban-renewal czar. The blocks had housed waves of Jewish and Italian immigrants; later, African Americans and Puerto Ricans moved in. The neighborhood had been among the most crowded places on Earth at the turn of the 20th century, with people living in conditions as squalid as any slum megalopolis existing today.