Rosanne Haggerty stands in the ballroom of the Prince George Hotel in Manhattan,
a building that is being renovated in a new project undertaken by Common Ground
A Vision for the Times Square Hotel
By Jennifer Acker '00
Rosanne Haggerty '82 looks out the 15th-floor window and motions
to the ground below. Ten years ago, when her non-profit Common Ground Community
bought the building we're standing in, a transvestite bar, a XXX movie place and
lapdancing were the entertainments across the street. Despite the distinguished
next-door presence of The New York Times, its namesake square was seedy
at best. Today the block is different. Now a theater sparkles with a freshly painted
red and gold façade and advertises plays suited for the general public;
a luxury Westin Hotel is going up next door. Haggerty credits the recent improvements
to new adult-use zoning laws that prohibit the clustering of pornography stores,
strip clubs and other such businesses while protecting their First Amendment right
Haggerty wouldn't say so, but it is largely through her own efforts, too, that
the block has begun to show a better face. Many years ago, the Times Square Hotel,
on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, catered to those who could afford
front-row orchestra seats in the area's nearby Broadway venues; but its last incarnation
was as a welfare hotel, a dumping ground for the homeless, including people with
mental illness, drug addictions and violent tendencies. The building was a place
of stabbings, fires and rats. In 1990 the city threw up its hands and sought proposals
from developers to create a budget hotel. But what would be done with the tenants,
many of whom were destitute and ill? Some proposals called for "bifurcating"
the building, Haggerty recalls: sectioning off a part of the hotel for the borderline
homeless who would surely be undesirable to the tourist crowd. For Haggerty, then
still in her late 20s, that solution left much to be desired.
The Times Square Hotel had the potential to be a shining example of innovative
supportive housing, where tenant social services are provided on location; and
from her experience of working seven years at Brooklyn Catholic Charities, Haggerty
knew what kinds of questions to ask about plans for a renovation. Her biggest
challenge, however, was not architectural, nor was it navigating the city's bureaucracy.
It was the conceptual, social design: "how to mitigate the scale of the building."
The hotel had more than 700 rooms, and "all the conventional wisdom on housing
for the poor and people with special needs was that small is beautiful,"
she says. "A lot of the large-scale housing for the poor in this country,
and in other parts of the world, has just imploded; it's ended up creating miserable
ghettos of social pathology and despair."
For a couple of months after she learned of its plight, the Times Square "intruded
on my thoughts," she says, stirring her mentally and emotionally. For one
thing, she did not trust the city's instincts to create something good out of
a very bad situation. "I just couldn't imagine that a responsible plan could
be forwarded that would advocate the building's uses as supportive housing targeting
the homeless." As she watched the hotel slide "toward oblivion and bankruptcy
court, the impulse to do something became pretty overwhelming," Haggerty
says. She grimaces now, imagining the hopeless waste the structure could have
become. Haggerty has a physically striking facestraight nose, wide eyes
and smile, and dark, arching eyebrows. Yet her voice is soft and calm, both reasoned
and compassionate. "I think it was one of those insights in the shower, where
it occurred to me that this was one of the few places that clearly had a market
for affordable housing serving low-income working people, particularly people
in the arts, in the theater and entertainment industry, who are usually quite
proud of their pioneering, edgy attitude, 'Give me the run-down neighborhood and
we'll turn it into lofts and galleries.'"
Photo: Frank Ward