Op/Ed: More Views on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area

The following opinion piece was written by Lower East Side resident Brett Leitner:

This note is in response to Julia Kent and Ernest Wurzbach’s letter about SPURA published in The Lo-Down on Thursday, October 28. As a leader of the group, SHARE (Sustainable Housing And Retail Expansion), I welcome as much community engagement and input on this topic as possible. Different points of view will help expand our collective consciousness about SPURA and help lead to the best possible outcome. While I welcome the issues that were raised in the letter, some of the points warrant rebuttal.

Concerning the impact that developing SPURA would have on the “quality of life, property value, and livelihood” of nearby residents, I strongly believe that any short-term inconveniences will be more than outweighed by the long-term benefits gained by modernizing our neighborhood with the new housing and amenities we currently lack. Moreover, these benefits will last for generations. As a point of comparison, imagine the disruption caused by the construction of the Seward Park Co-Op (I’m sure some residents remember!), which leveled an area of land larger than the current SPURA sites in question and turned Grand Street from Essex to Pitt Streets into a massive construction zone. I think few would say that effort was in vain despite the inconvenience it certainly caused. Revitalizing the SPURA sites is likely to improve, not hinder, property values in the surrounding areas, as well, by attracting new residents and visitors (along with their money) to the neighborhood and creating a surge in demand for the pre-existing properties and amenities.

Regarding the so-called character of the SPURA sites that was raised in this letter, those empty parking lots with their barbed wire fences, unkempt sidewalks and rat infestation surely do not add value to our neighborhood and actually lower the quality of life for residents in the adjacent buildings. Though I appreciate the value of open space, these lots are not the type of open space that can be utilized for community purposes. While parking has its value, that can be accommodated in any new construction that occurs on SPURA, along with so many other resources that the neighborhood could benefit from.

The real character of those blocks died with the wrecking ball in the 1960s, when attractions such as the Loews Apollo movie theater, the original Kossar’s bialy shop and countless other stores, homes and destinations were lost. If we truly want to be consistent with the historical character of the neighborhood and do justice to the buildings that were torn down, then building a variety of buildings and attractions would be in keeping with the tradition of how the Lower East Side has existed for over 200 years.

The letter questions why the push to develop these sites now? Simply put, this is a unique moment in the history of SPURA as we have an administration that is highly supportive of the effort to rebuild and is allowing a genuine community conversation to unfold around the process. After Bloomberg leaves office it is uncertain what the new administration will have in store for SPURA. While SHARE embraces the idea of using parts of SPURA for green space as well as for community purposes, it does not seem viable to assume that no housing of any kind be built considering that the land is owned by the Dept. of Housing Preservation & Development, whose mission is to build new homes. Also, concerns about building high-rises on the sites is a bit overstated as the current zoning restrictions would likely put many of the buildings in the 6-12 story range, which would avoid a scenario where Grand Street views would be walled off from the surrounding city.

As for the aesthetic character of any new buildings, I concur that far too many new developments in the city have a generic and soulless look. That is why participation in the SPURA process by the authors of this letter is so critical. However, before we get to that point, let’s first focus our energy on reaching community consensus on what to build on SPURA and how the total square footage should be allocated. SHARE will continue to advocate for a solution that involves mixed use of the land in a way that is both financially sustainable and fair to the considerations of the entire population of the neighborhood.

To truly embrace the history of the LES and SPURA is to develop those sites with something better than once existed there. I think it’s high time we made good on that promise. Those buildings were not razed to remain empty in perpetuity, so I would caution against using their current status as a precedent for keeping them that way. But I am glad Ms. Kent and Mr. Wurzbach have joined the discussion in such a civil and substantive way, as this should characterize the larger SPURA debate going forward.

-Brett Leitner, SHARE