Urban Mass A Look at Co-op City

Located in the Northeast corner of the Bronx, in the area known as Baychester, sits the largest housing cooperative in the world. Co-op City is home to about 50,000 people; if it suddenly decided to secede from Bronx County, it would be one of the 15 largest cities in the state.  

“Co-op City as a stand-alone would be the 10th largest city in New York—it’s massive,” says Herbert Freedman, principal of Marion Scott Real Estate, which oversees the operation of Riverbay Corporation, Co-op City’s management company.

A Long History

Years ago, on the 300-acre plot of marshy land along the west bank of the Hutchinson River where Co-op City now rises, there once was an American history-themed amusement park called Freedomland. The park lasted only four years (from 1960 to 1964) before it filed for bankruptcy and was shuttered permanently.

Prior to Freedomland, the land occupied by Co-op City was reincarnated several times — first as the home of the Siwasnoy Indians, then as a cucumber farm and pickle factory, then as a failed municipal airport. The planning and building of Co-op City began in 1965 after the demolition of Freedomland, with the first apartment building completed in 1968. While the project was officially completed in 1973, some building continued up till the early 1980s.  

Co-op City was the largest construction project of the United Housing Foundation (UHF), a non-profit organization created in 1951 to promote consumer cooperatives and housing.

Development and Architecture

Co-op City consists of 15,372 residential units in 35 high-rise buildings and seven three-story townhouse clusters.  There are three shopping centers with about 150 stores, and more than 40 offices rented by doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. A 25-acre educational park is home to three elementary schools, two middle schools and Harry S. Truman High School; there is also a weather station, 14 gymnasiums, two swimming pools, a planetarium and the Museum of Migrating Peoples.  

The high-rise buildings of Co-op City were designed by Herman Jesser, an architect who advocated “tower-in-the-park” urban renewal. Of the development’s 300 acres, only 20 percent of the land was constructed upon, which left large green areas left open, including a 60-acre greenway that was once the centerpiece of the parkland in Co-op City. (Unfortunately, large portions of the greenway were paved over in 2003 to make space for parking.)

Co-op City also boasts 15 churches and houses of worship, six nursery schools and day care centers, four basketball courts, and five baseball diamonds.  Each of the shopping plazas has its own supermarket and a variety of restaurants; Bay Plaza even has its own multiplex movie theater.

Riverbay Corporation

Co-op City is managed by the Riverbay Corporation, which has 32 administrative/operational departments and over 1,000 employees. The corporation is overseen by a 15-member board of elected directors, and presided over by board president Al Shapiro.  

Mirande Valbrune, the human resources director of Riverbay, says that because of the large number of employees, the administrative departments primarily serve the needs of Riverbay Corporation, rather than the shareholders themselves. The company’s administrative offices range from financial to legal to human resources, as well as community relations, giving Riverbay a liaison between governmental and community groups. There’s also the sales department, which handles new shareholders, transfers, and sales.  

According to Valbrune, the Riverbay employees handle everything having to do with repairs, public safety, upkeep of the grounds, waste management, and the power plant.

Debt and Deterioration

Despite the progressive intentions that originally inspired the developers of Co-op City, the community has had its share of problems over the years—both structural and financial.

Co-op City was built on a marsh. The development’s buildings are supported by over 50,000 pilings extending down into the bedrock, but over the years, the underground utility system—which was laid in landfill trenches—has proven vulnerable to movement and settling. According to Freedman, the settling earth has also caused shear fractures in the buildings’ walls and disrupted stairs and ramps at their entrances.

The initial construction also went over budget, with each unit costing $4,000 more to build than originally anticipated. Adding to that were management issues.  

In 1975, the officers of Riverbay Corporation tried to offset the budget deficit by passing along the $4,000-per-apartment overrun to the residents in the form of a 25 percent increase in monthly carrying charges—a move that resulted in a 13-month rent strike. That strike would become the longest and largest in United States history. Eventually the state conceded, and only modest rent hikes were implemented.

The financial issues didn’t end there, however. Over the years, the bills for repairs at Co-op City have climbed, while the buildings themselves have deteriorated.  In 1992, the state provided $108 million for repairs—by that point however, the estimated cost for the necessary work was more like $210 million.  Vacancies were also increasing around this time, so the state issued the development a $3 million grant to lower the purchase price for apartments. That move proved more successful, and helped bring the vacancy rate down from its all-time high in 1993 of about 1,500 empty apartments.

It wasn’t enough, however. By 2003, says Freedman, the financial and structural situations at Co-op City could not be ignored. Windows needed replacing, the cement terraces were crumbling, elevators needed to be modernized, roofs and brick facades needed repair. On top of all that, the backup generator at the development’s power plant left the community in the dark during the August blackout. The final straw however, came when the greenways were paved over a couple of years ago to make room for the desperately needed parking spaces. The parking situation itself had become dire thanks to the community’s original parking garages being condemned.

Turning the Tide

Clearly, Co-op City was in need of some major help. The first solution came from Albany in 2004 when the New York State Housing Finance Agency (HFA) and the Division of Housing and Community Renewal agreed to refinance Co-op City’s $192 million mortgage and lend Riverbay $275 million for capital repairs.  Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the city also stepped in and made J-51 benefits available to Co-op City residents, which added savings of $14 million through property tax abatement. Finally, the New York Community Bank gave the community a $480 million loan for still more essential repairs and to pay off the existing balance with the HFA.

Thanks to those infusions of cash and assistance from the city and state, Co-op City has undertaken major improvement projects aimed at rejuvenating the community and preserving residents’ quality of life. According to Freedman, there are currently dozens of works projects in various stages, including two new garages slated to open at the end of 2006, modernization of the complex’s elevators, new windows in every apartment, and rebuilt balconies.

Best of all perhaps, Co-op City’s revamped power plant now includes both gas and steam turbines, with trigeneration being used for everything from hot water to basic electricity.

More Room for Less

Apartments at Co-op City are offered in various sizes with floor plans of three, three-and-a-half, four, four-and-a-half, five, six, and six-and-a-half rooms.  Apartments come with an array of standard features and amenities, but purchasers also have the opportunity to select designer options to enhance the finish of the apartment at additional cost.  

In 2004, Co-op City’s mortgage was refinanced, resulting in an increase in apartment costs and maintenance charges. In April of 2007, there will be another 1.5 percent increase. The 2006 cost to buy a Co-op City apartment ranges from $10,500 to $22,750, with carrying charges from $512 to $1,109 per month—making it one of the most affordable developments in the city.

In order to obtain and apartment, prospective buyers apply with the Riverbay Corporation for approval.  Even with the financial and maintenance challenges of recent years, there are no apartments immediately available in Co-op City. All applications are put on waiting lists, and the current wait time for one- and two-bedroom apartments is approximately two months. Three-bedroom apartments have a longer waiting list.  

Since Co-op City is a Mitchell-Lama building, it has a minimum income requirement, making it a residence for primarily middle-income families. The current income requirements range from $22,582 to a maximum income of $123,624 per household; the only exception are lower income requirements for senior citizens 62 years of age or older.

Diverse Dreams

From the beginning, Co-op City was a racially diverse community, with families from a wide array of cultures putting down roots and taking advantage of the development’s resources and affordable housing. While it began with Irish, Italian, and Jewish residents, Co-op City was also home to significant African-American and Latin populations right from the start. Over the years, the face of the Co-op City community has changed, and changed again, from European to Caribbean, but always reflecting a vibrant mix of people from all over the world. Recently, there has been a large influx of Jewish families from the former Soviet Union, looking for a more diverse environment than the predominately Russian neighborhoods of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.

“It was the first time for such a mixed neighborhood,” says David Chesler, whose family lived in Co-op City from 1970 to 1991.

With a new lease on life and major improvements underway and ongoing, it appears that the diversity and accessibility represented by Co-op City still have a foothold in an otherwise challenging housing market.

Ross Whitsett is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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17 Comments

  • i would like someone to start investigating the health issues arising from continuous pressurized steam release to the the hearing, long term stress and quality of life of the tenants of 100 coop city blvd.
  • Co-Op City is a great place to live, and the open space is wonderful.Can't wai till the Greenway is restored.
  • Cooperators should be able to move from one unit to another without any additional cost if one lives here for at least ten or twelve years.
  • A glorified ghetto. Whats making it worse is that now all the yuppies from the Manhattan are starting to move in which means they will chase the locals out the same way they did to the Upper Westside and Harlem. Nobody wants you here, go to Long Island where you belong
  • I think Coop City offers great space at affordable rates. I love it's openess and diversity.I have lived here for over 20 years, and I still think it is a great place. If it were a pet friendly community, that would make it even better!!!
  • Celeste - You sound very racist. By "yuppie" you mean white people.
  • I lived in coop city for 10 years now and my family and I lke it a lot. Sure there are some problems but they are being worked on. For instance, We now have new windows, elevators, balconies and the building structures are being worked on. It is not as great as it was in the beginning when it was first built, but it is still a nice place to live in my opinion. The rooms are spacious and it is in one of the better neighborhoods in the bronx.
  • I have lived here 3 months and I agree the diversity is unmatched not a perfect place but all the elements are in place to make it close if only the people get involved if you see something say something annonymously or not
  • Celeste, REALLY!!!? If Co-op City is a "glorified ghetto," then wouldn't it be a good thing that the "yuppies" are moving in and driving out the riffraff? You sound like a racist who has nothing better to do than to complain. Get up and do something constructive instead of beating it down and doing nothing about it. You're probably the reason the "yuppies" are moving in...to get rid of bigots like yourself. It would be a welcome change if you ask me.
  • You get out of Co op City what you put in. I love this place and encourage all people of good character to join our our community. Help us flush out the undisirebles.
  • I am considering buying in CC. I own my condo in Parkchester. I welcome the idea of integration am sure it will add a refreshing touch and change the climate of the environment on a whole.
  • consider this..on the plus side--free heat/ac and electric and very large rooms..the minus side--the rent keeps climbing, there are roach problems everywhere, and walls are paper thin. There is a constant battle among neighbors hearing each other's noise. Water/laundry seems to get shut off more than normal; finally, traffic in the surrounding area is bad now and will be sure to get much worse with all the shopping strucutres they are adding
  • To Celeste who said "glorified ghetto" and "yuppies" in the same post - you are quite the genius aren't you? (insert sarcasm). How about this, if you treat your community like it's "yours" and "co-operate" with your neighbors then maybe things will change. If you sit behind a screen and type ignorance then guess what...you just proved to outsiders that the residents are ignorant like they assume all of us are! No one wants to live with the ignorant or the bigots - RACISM COMES From ALL RACES AND ETHNICITIES SO STOP! Get involved, make it a place you are proud of. At a minimum have some respect, decency and consideration for those around you. If you are upset about something then why not contact management, the DHCR, HUD, your local politicians. YOU can always just move out. Too ghetto for you – then move on up. To “yuppie-ish” then well try Bed Stuy, it’s still fairly gritty and has that 1980’s burned out city vibe. I welcome all kinds of WORKING MIDDLE CLASS people to the community. All the lazy, destructive do-nothings can exit stage left. The developers are coming for the boro and lots of "yuppies" short for "young urban professionals" or "young upwardly-mobile professionals" are going to move in. Deal with it! Just like a lot of middle class residents dealt with the "low income" people who somehow got in to the complex! It's the ebb and flow of supply and demand. Anyone who thinks yuppie just means "white" person is dumb and needs to get a dictionary. In fact I'm going to start a Young Professionals of Co-op City group to shut you up!!! Look at Penn South in Manhattan they put Co-op City to shame. Put up or shut up. And if you don't know how to live in a working class community and respect your neighbors get ready to move cause they are coming for you! People are sick and tired of dealing with the BS here!
  • Everyone in their right mind should want a decent place like coop city every where else is so expensive i live on roosevelt island cant wait to be called for coop city
  • Honestly the apartments in Co-op City are a nice size, they just need to be updated with better/newer finishes. Whoever said that the walls are thin is wrong; most of the walls are in fact cast concrete. However, there are a few metal/plaster diving walls. In most new construction you will find the walls to be much thinner and the noise travels between units much more, even in "luxury rentals" in Manhattan. In Co-op City some of the tenants may be a bit too loud if you can hear them that easily. I would suggest writing a polite (anonymous) letter to your neighbors asking them to please keep noise down. This has worked quite well for me. If not call security because after 11pm the noise ordinance laws are applicable people. In the past few years the landscaping has improved greatly and they just finished revitalizing the ball courts on Asch Loop! Bellamy/Benchley courts to be revamped soon. The community has people that should not be residing here but, this is going to change soon because the housing crunch in the other boroughs is forcing people to consider other areas and also because certain requirements of the Wells Fargo/HUD backed loan. One thing that baffles me is that the community is not more vocal about the need for recreational spaces for both adults and youth. Back in the day we had access to the amenities at Truman, so I hear. We should have access to cooking classes, art classes, yoga, sports, swimming etc. Come on now! People want that back and hopefully we will achieve that goal. All in all Co-op City is a microcosm of the city as a whole. So no surprise there was rampant corruption, cronyism, and bureaucracy...welcome to NYC peeps, hi Shedon Silver! Only YOU can change it. It is a neighborhood that people should take pride in. No one should want it to be labeled "the hood" or a "tough ghetto" you can be tough but still keep your area clean, safe and devoid of thuggery. Even the Mafia kept it's neighborhoods nice. Co-op is one of the last middle income affordable places with lots of trees and open spaces. Mind you there are no gas or electric bills either so factor that in and I'd say it's a win. Now granted, I would not really want to pay equity of almost 30K to move into a 3 bedroom with terrace with the ugly cheap finishes and no fridge or stove or window shades/blinds. I do think that if Riverbay decides to market the complex in a better light/ to a wider demographic and they work with vendors to get large volume deals to obtain better finishes for the units and provide appliances and window treatments then you will see more people interested in becoming a part of a "co-operative community". People want more for that equity. Don't be fooled people Co-op is NOT the projects (they would NEVER have our landscaping or our tennis courts duh). Um and the "yuppies" comment LOL who even says that anymore OMG..... So weird that yuppie means "Young Urban Professional" and is associated with "white people" but the word "urban" is associated with what is referred to as "the minorities" (such a stupid and terrible term). How about just young professionals?! Granted it's not going to be a Williamsburg situation anytime soon BUT it is going to change. There are lots of young people who are sick of the race baiting BS and also aren't interested in having children so the schools are null and void. We just want to pay an affordable monthly payment for our flat and to be in a safe area where we can own a car and get around. Sounds like a tiny piece of the American dream. Maybe if we all start being thankful for the lives we live and also try to live within our means we can see the neighborhood as a blessing and something to be really proud of. Let me remind you that all over the world there are human beings living where bombs are constantly going off and wars are never ending. Sometimes a change in thinking goes a long way. Because if you don’t value what you have and what you can take and improve don’t come bitching when
  • @ Positive Thinking - Thank you for your thoughts on Co-op City. It was very well said. As a "child of Co-op City" who grew up there from 1975 -1996, it's a wonderful place to live especially due to its affordability and amenities. It annoys me when people put down Co-op City like it was an urban dump. It literally is a city within a city with Bay Plaza and the new mall there. I hope Co-op City will continue to draw people like yourself who appreciate the nice place it really is.
  • Coop City is the best. I love the green ways, I love the size of my apartment and the balcony. This landscaping is good quality and love taking walks around the COOP City Loop. There is shopping and eateries that are good however I do miss the many restaurants on the Upper East Side. I have lived at COOP for the past 8 years and will remain to the end of my days. I love to walk to Orchard Beach via the trails and see the marsh grasses and walking though the woods. I may even take up gulf. Pelham Bay Park is outstanding and have wonderful views of the Park and the River. I love the people in the community as most keep to their own business and are polite to each other. Christmas is a joy with all the twinkling lights, Spring is wonderful with the cherry blossoms everywhere, and each season has it's own beauty. City Island is close and can get some good fish food. The mall is fun to visit now that I have my gym membership and it even has a lap pool. I could not be happier to live here and so close to Manhattan. The express bus is very good and can get you up to the UES of Manhattan within a half hour. The price is right and living is good. Coop City the best kept secrete in the city.