Affordable Housing Advocates Press for Public Subsidies on SPURA Site

Monday night, community activists met in a sweltering auditorium at University Settlement to play a game. No money changed hands, but there were plenty of poker faces, and the stakes were high. The participants were members of Community Board 3’s land use and housing committee. Their task is to determine whether the neighborhood can at long last reach a consensus on the redevelopment of the Seward park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA).  This week’s meeting was the second of four sessions being led by John Shapiro, an urban planner hired by the city to help break a 43-year impasse.

In the game, members of the committee (the SPURA task force) were asked to move around colorful pieces of paper, assembling their own collage.  The finished product was supposed to reveal their priorities for the redevelopment site, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. How much housing and what types (low income, middle income market rate)? Office space? Room for small businesses? Big box stores? A movie theater? A school?  The idea was to focus the task force members on the difficult choices that lie ahead.

In the end, at least some participants expressed frustration. After two years of monthly meetings, the committee’s affordable housing advocates are anxious to get to the nitty gritty.  Determined to access public subsidies in order to maximize the number of low and middle income apartments on the development site, they argued the game set up “false assumptions.” Over and over, Shapiro told them, their fixation on subsidies could doom the project (more on his thinking in a moment). It is not a message they were anxious to hear.

It’s safe to say there’s more optimism about making a deal than at any time in many years.  Reflecting this optimism, Councilmember Maragret Chin was in the audience Monday night. “This is so important,” she said in brief remarks before the committee. “That’s why I’m here, even though we’re in the middle of budget negotiations,” she said.   A lifelong housing activist, Chin was unambiguous about her aspirations for the SPURA site:

I know all of you know my background in affordable housing. I really see this as an opportunity to create housing that we need. I hope that through the discussions we will come to a consensus and come up with some great ideas.  I look at that site. It is a site of opportunity.

During the past couple of months, Shapiro and colleague Eva Baron have conducted individual interviews with committee members, other neighborhood “stakeholders” and city officials.  Monday night, they walked the group through a slide show, detailing what they learned.

EDC map.

Many of those interviewed, of course, stressed a strong desire for housing on the development site. But Shapiro said there was also widespread support for both small and so-called “medium box” stores on SPURA. In the name of creating jobs in the neighborhood, most people want to see shops providing basic services and the sorts of low-cost products (clothing, for example) tough to find in a newly gentrified community.

Shapiro said there’s a total of about 1.5 million square feet available for development.  Assuming the project includes a significant amount of commercial space, he estimated there’s probably room for around a thousand apartments. He called the site a “powerhouse location” for retail, given its proximity to the Williamsburg Bridge and the subway, as well as the large number of potential customers in the densely populated LES.

Based on conversations with the Department of Education, he suggested there does not appear to be a need for a new school in the complex, unless it’s a charter school (more on this another day). A lot of people would like to see a movie theater on the site.  There’s also interest in setting aside space for offices, presumably as a way of increasing daytime foot traffic in the neighborhood. However, given the high office vacancy rate in Manhattan, Shapiro advised against making this a priority. In spite of the fact that a hotel would be lucrative, there’s (unsurprisingly) almost no appetite for another one in the community.

Committee member Val Orselli questioned Shapiro’s assumptions about the amount of housing that could be created.  He noted that the Cooper Square project (the Avalon complex on Houston Street) included 700 apartments, even though it’s only half the size of the Seward Park site.  Shapiro responded that “upzoning,” which would be necessarily to build more residential units, did not make financial sense. Drawing on city estimates, he indicated “upzoning” would add greatly to infrastructure costs (roads, sewage, subway, etc).

Shapiro said “upzoning” would make financial sense to accommodate more commercial tenants, which are more lucrative than residences.  He rejected the idea, floated by some committee members,  that more affordable apartments could be created through the use of city subsidies:

We are making a very important assumption that the project will finance itself internally. This is the most valuable piece of property the city housing agency controls. They can decide to throw city money at this site, which has tremendous inherent real estate value or spend the same amount of money in Brownsville, let’s say, where they’re not just building housing but they’re helping to stabilize a neighborhood. Our own view, and I gather their (the city’s) view, is that discretionary money is best spent where you can rebuild neighborhoods as well as housing.

Committee member Harvey Epstein countered:

I just don’t want the framework to be that this has to be a market driven solution. There are different subsidies for different types of affordable housing. To say that the city has to make a choice about stabilizing another community vs. putting resources in this community — the argument is – putting resources in this community stabilizes this community.

Shapiro’s response:

I would suggest to you — to put it bluntly – agencies are stakeholders, too… The city would be, I’m sure, supportive of discretionary dollars that aren’t city subsidies (federal or state money)… But if it came to saying HPD has a budget of $3 million — where are they going to spend that money? — I don’t think they’re going to spend it here.

Perhaps, more fundamentally, Shapiro advised the committee not to dwell on these sorts of specifics.  Deciding the ratios of low/middle/market rate apartments is well within the committee’s purview, he suggested. But urging the panel to stay unified (not only now but in years to come), he said too much specificity could undermine collaboration. “The problem with the site is the community does not agree, so let’s stay focused on whether you guys can come to an agreement with each other,” he said.

Quite a few people had come to Monday’s meeting to observe and speak about SPURA.  The crowd quickly dwindled after the game exercise began. Those who stayed expressed strong opinions. Adrienne Chevresett, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street, said it was unfair to blame the community for inaction on the SPURA parcels. Chevresett argued politicians have failed the neighborhood, as “the affordable housing stock was robbed left and right from the Lower East Side.”

Yesterday, I asked Councilmember Chin for her thoughts on the meeting. She continued to express optimism about the process but added that efforts should be made to ensure it is as open and broad as possible.  There’s a need, she suggested, to solicit opinions from all sorts of people in the community, rather than confining the conversation to the SPURA task force. Chin also told me she favors exploring a wide range of financing options, as well as other creative solutions.

Through the years, residents on Grand Street have fought efforts to build low income housing on SPURA, saying the neighborhood already has more than its share. At this week’s meeting, however, there was not much input from either committee members or the general audience expressing this viewpoint. This may have been due, in part, to the absence of two committee members, residents of the the Grand Street co-ops. It also could have reflected the fact that the affordable housing advocates have run a sustained campaign to engage their most passionate supporters. There is no similar effort on Grand Street.

The next meeting takes place next month. We’ll let you know when we have a time and location.