Affordable Housing Advocates Hold SPURA Meetings

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

After a two month hiatus, a Community Board 3 panel seeking a consensus on the redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) will reconvene on October 20th.  It will be the fourth and final “facilitated session” led by John Shapiro, chair of he Pratt Institute’s Center for Planning & the Environment.

But during the break, activists and city officials have been busy working on the SPURA issue, which has divided the Lower East Side for 43 years. Yesterday afternoon, for example, the neighborhood preservation organization, GOLES, held the first of three community meetings to gather feedback from residents about the future of the development site, 10 parcels adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge.

During the meeting, participants broke up into small groups to complete an “urban planning game,” replicating an exercise Shapiro coaxed SPURA task force members through back in July. If you’ve followed our coverage, you know residents (and many of the affordable housing advocates on the committee) were displeased that there were so few opportunities during that meeting for the community-at-large to participate. They also expressed displeasure with assumptions Shapiro has used during the deliberations, namely, that SPURA must pay for itself rather than be built with government subsidies.

Yesterday’s session was held on Grand Street, at St. Mary’s Church, a center of Latino life  on the Lower East Side for generations.  Speaking in Spanish and English, Father Neil Connolly urged about 60 people in attendance to persevere, even though the battle for affordable housing on SPURA has been lengthy, frustrating and even though, as he put it, “we do not have a lot of friends in the political order who have been helpful.”  His remarks were similar to those he delivered during a sermon a week ago Sunday.

The CB3 committee is made up of representatives from many different organizations, including GOLES.  Community board leaders have insisted on keeping the deliberations confined to this core group, in an effort to avoid the sorts of bitter confrontations that have derailed past deal-making efforts.  But GOLES Executive Director Damaris Reyes has advocated for more outreach,  arguing that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect task force members to represent so many segments of the neighborhood (in her case, the entire Latino population of the LES).

The GOLES planning meetings, she said, are meant to inform the community board process.  Reyes said they are not intended to undermine CB3’s efforts and, in fact, are designed to complement the task force’s ongoing discussions.  GOLES will hold another community session tomorrow night, 7pm, at the Seward Park Community Center, 56 Essex Street. The final meeting will be held Thursday at 7pm, at Grand Street Settlement, 80 Pitt Street.

GOLES is not the only organization that’s been active the last couple of months.  SHARE, a new group led by residents of the Seward Park Cooperative, has been recruiting new members and has launched a petition drive. Their organizing activities have not gone unnoticed by the NYC Economic Development Corp., the lead city agency in redeveloping the site.  Officials from the EDC have stepped up their own outreach in recent weeks on the Lower East Side, and will be briefing Grand Street residents on SPURA later this month.

Historically, the SPURA debate has been dominated by groups that were either strongly in favor of building affordable housing — or strongly opposed to it.  Backed by State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, residents of the co-ops advocated for market-rate apartments and/or commercial development.

But the presence of SHARE (which stands for Sustainable Housing and Retail Expansion) and, more generally the influx of hundreds of new residents in the co-ops during the past decade may have changed the dynamic.  Some activists (and perhaps some city officials) hope these factors will lead Silver to conclude his Grand Street political base is becoming less monolithic, and more amenable to compromise.  That’s their hope, anyway.

CB3’s next SPURA meeting will be held Wednesday, October 20th at 630pm, at P.S. 124, 40 Division Street.