Op/Ed: Support CB3’s SPURA Planning Guidelines

The following opinion piece was written by Brett Leitner, founder of SHARE, a neighborhood organization advocating for the redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area:

Now is the Time for Progress on SPURA!

The saga of SPURA has come to a climax with Community Board 3 voting this Monday night on guidelines for a mixed-use development that would replace dilapidated parking lots with multi-income housing, retail properties, green spaces, cultural/educational institutions, and more. The future of SPURA impacts everyone on the Lower East Side. As a Grand Street resident and founder of SHARE (Sustainable Housing And Retail Expansion), I believe the guidelines will prove most beneficial to our neighborhood and therefore warrants the community’s support.

The empty SPURA sites were once a community of diverse residents and shops. The guidelines envision a future where an active neighborhood exists once again. However, some are opposing them for allocating half of the housing for affordable units by invoking images of failed public housing projects. This concept is NOT what the guidelines propose. Housing for low, moderate, and middle-income levels are included, reminiscent of the multi-income residents that make up the Grand Street co-ops (plus a full 50% allocation for market rate units). Also, the way affordable housing is built today is vastly different from how it was built years ago. Nowadays, developers take advantage of tax benefits to erect “80/20″ buildings, a co-existing mix of market rate and affordable units, which would be the template for a SPURA development.

We should note that while a 50% affordable housing allocation is too little for some residents, for others who see the neighborhood as already containing significant amounts of affordable housing, this number is too high. The debate over how much affordable housing should be built on SPURA has been argued  for decades now. If we want to continue this argument for decades more, that is an option. But it will not do anything to address the real and varied needs of our community in the near-term and will definitely cause everyone to lose out for the foreseeable future. The current mix of housing is fair to all parties and politically realistic. Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Some have argued that selling the SPURA lots at anything less than market value is reason alone to oppose the guidelines. However, the SPURA sites adjacent to Grand Street are owned by the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, whose mission is to build housing, not maximize income from city-owned property. The city’s overall goal would realize enormous economic benefits for the city and the LES in the long-term from taxes collected on the creation of new jobs and housing. Why, as some suggest, would we want to sell this land for maximum profit and build housing in the outer boroughs when that money and infrastructure can be invested right here in our neighborhood? Also worth noting are studies that have demonstrated how mixed income developments like the one proposed on SPURA have a neutral to positive effect on nearby property values.

We should feel satisfied that the process of arriving at these guidelines included community input every step of the way. The wants and needs of our diverse community were considered in the formation of these balanced and sensible guidelines and we will continue to have a hand in influencing the design and character of SPURA as this process unfolds. If the option existed to simply sell the SPURA land to the highest bidder, do we really think that the developer would consider the community’s input in such a meaningful way?

I strongly support the passage of the SPURA guidelines and encourage members of the community to do so as well. The opportunity to finally develop SPURA means the Lower East Side will gain vibrant, new neighborhood assets for all to use, rather than us having to endure more years of blighted lots. Just as the Grand Street Co-ops themselves advanced a 19th century neighborhood into the 20th century, so too can a dynamic SPURA development bring the Lower East Side into the 21st century and create a more prosperous future for all of our residents.