Whose neighborhood is it? This is the question that has divided the Lower East Side for at least the past 40 years and has stymied the development of the most valuable piece of land New York City owns. Last night, community activists struggling to reach a consensus on the future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area finally confronted the thorny issue head on. While the discussion was mostly civil, it also exposed the deep ethnic and class divisions which are a fact of life in this gentrifying community.
The members of Community Board 3’s SPURA task force met in the Henry Street Settlement’s gymnasium with the intention of finalizing redevelopment guidelines for the 7-acre site, most of which was bulldozed in the name of urban renewal in 1967. Generally speaking, the proposal calls for building a mixed use/mixed income community on several blocks adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge. Retail, including “medium-box” stores and perhaps a movie theater or grocery store, would make up 40% of the project. 60% would be given over to low, middle and market rate housing. Around two-acres would be set aside for open space.
All along, the sticking point has been the issue of affordable housing. In the last couple of months, community board leaders have floated a plan that would, more or less, divide the project 50/50, between market rate and low/middle/moderate income apartments. Last night it became apparent some stakeholders are, at least right now, unwilling to accept this type of compromise — and are determined to tip the balance one way or another. So for the moment, it’s a stalemate.
Linda Jones, a Seward Park resident and community board member, suggested many people in the co-ops would oppose any plan in which market rate apartments made up less than half of the SPURA project. She said some co-op shareholders are so opposed to more affordable housing that, if it dominates SPURA, they’d rather see the parcels used for parking (as they are now).
These comments produced some heckling from the audience. One woman said, “people who live in the co-ops are prejudiced.” Although Jones did not broach the subject, committee member Herman Hewitt speculated that what many co-op residents really fear is the impact new low income housing would have on their property values. “People should stop saying that affordable housing reduces equity. The cooperatives (envisioned as middle income developments) were built and they did not chase anyone away from the Lower East Side.” Hewitt went on to explain that he was barred from moving to Grand Street many years ago (at a time in which the cooperatives were accused of discriminating against non-Jews). The argument that the presence of poor people in the neighborhood lowers property values could be perceived as racism, Hewitt said.
Damaris Reyes, executive director of GOLES, asked, “wouldn’t any development (market rate or low income) on SPURA increase property values?” But on a more basic level, she said, “this is not about housing but about the people who live in that housing. I would hate to think that my neighbors don’t want people like me living across the street.”
Following the meeting, Jones told me she never said anything about property values. Co-op residents, she indicated, are concerned about the prospect of big box stores on SPURA, more tall buildings obstructing their city views and construction noise. Jones said she is not personally concerned about these issues, but felt obligated, as a co-op representative, to make sure the committee understood the range of opinions on Grand Street. “People jumped to conclusions” about racism, Jones said, rather than allowing her to finish speaking.
Another panel member, Michael Zisser, suggested there might be a way for the two sides to get past their historic differences. Noting that there’s a huge lack of housing for middle class families, he suggested the plan might be more palatable to everyone if this category was given more emphasis. What if, he asked, SPURA housing consisted of: 50% market rate, 20% low income, 10% senior housing, 10% middle income (maximum HH income $130,000)) and 10% moderate income (maximum HH income $100,000)?
Michael Tumminia, a Seward Park board member, said Zisser’s plan might very well be “sellable” if it’s thoroughly explained to co-op residents. But Karen Blatt, another Seward Park cooperator, disagreed, saying “I think it’s got to be majority market rate” in order to win widespread support on Grand Street.
Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, is opposed to building any more affordable housing on SPURA. But his approach is a bit different from other Grand Street representatives. Last night, as in other public meetings, he has called for an emphasis on commercial development, saying what the neighborhood really needs is job creation. Kaplan asked whether it would be possible to devote even more than 40% of the project to retail. He also questioned the notion that market rate apartments on SPURA would be rented for $6000/month (thereby subsidizing other parts of the project). “What happens to the affordable housing piece of this if those apartment don’t go for $6000?,” he asked.
John Shapiro, an urban planner facilitating CB3’s negotiations, conceded the guidelines make a lot of assumptions. In the end, he suggested, market forces would help determine how much commercial development SPURA can absorb. At the same time, the state of the economy will dictate whether public subsidies can be funneled into the project to build more affordable housing. The committee is divided on the wisdom of a lot of specificity in the plan. Some members, for example, want to require developers to build at least one-thousand housing units. Others think these kinds of mandates are ill-advised.
But many of the details they have been discussing will be irrelevant if the members of the committee cannot come to terms soon on the proportions of affordable and market rate housing. Shapiro quipped last night, “I want all of you to be equally unhappy.” Committee Chair David McWater urged participants to compromise. “This administration (Mayor Michael Bloomberg) has two years left and the clock is ticking. I would ask you to consider whether walking away now is really worth the gamble,” he said. “For what? So 20 years down the road you get 100 more units (of housing)?… We can start building houses for people now.”
McWater also noted that there are “people both inside and outside this room” who can end these discussions at any time.” At the top of that list, of course, is State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has had nothing publicly to say about CB3’s deliberations in more than a year. During a public speaking session earlier in the evening, two residents asked why Silver had not lent his support to the SPURA process.
Earlier this year, City Councilmember Margaret Chin attended a task force meeting and promised to fight for a mixed income project emphasizing affordable housing. Last night, State Senator Daniel Squadron made his first appearance at a SPURA meeting, thanking committee members for conducting their conversations in an “open transparent and collaborative way.” He added, “We’re closer than we have ever come to reaching community consensus for this site. That’s because of the work you’re doing. I look forward to continuing to work with the community in the days and weeks ahead to try and make a positive conclusion a reality.”
At one point last night, some CB3 leaders were pressing for a vote on the guidelines. But Shapiro said he did not think it would be “productive.” Reyes said she hoped the committee would delay a vote until February, giving members time to work through their differences. Shapiro said he would distill the committee’s comments and distribute a revised draft.
If you would like to see the version of the guidelines the panel reviewed last night, it’s available on CB3’s web site.
There were many other topics discussed during the evening, including a new elementary school and the fate of the Essex Street Market. We’ll have separate reports on those subjects later.