A Look Ahead to Tonight’s SPURA Meeting

Tonight the Seward Park redevelopment (SPURA) task force reconvenes for the first time since its members, in an historic vote, approved planning guidelines last month.   There will be presentations from city officials about the next steps in the community planning process. They will, presumably, offer feedback about Community Board 3’s vision of a mixed use (residential-commercial) and mixed income project on the 7-acre parcel.

While there is little question the city has a desire to move forward, David Quart of the NYC Economic Development Corp. has said various agencies (as well as the mayor) would need to sign off on the proposal before they commit to beginning costly environmental and design studies on the SPURA site. Also this evening, committee members will get to know the architects from Beyer Binder Belle, the firm hired to advise CB3 in the next part of the planning exercises.

The community board voted unanimously in support of the guidelines. Within the committee, only one member (Damaris Reyes of the affordable housing organization GOLES) was opposed. Yesterday, the group sent an email to supporters urging them to come to tonight’s meeting, to speak their mind and “to make sure the design works for the community.”

Other neighborhood activists are planning to speak out, as well. A group fighting to keep the Essex Street Market in its current location has launched an online petition drive and plan to make their case before the committee.  Presently the guidelines say,  “there is a strong preference that the existing Essex Street Market remain on its current site,” but they also raise the prospect of the 70-year-old market being moved to a “superior location.” The petition asserts:

NOW IS THE TIME TO VOICE YOUR SUPPORT TO PRESERVE THE ESSEX STREET MARKET IN ITS CURRENT, HISTORICAL LOCATION. OUR CITY LEADERS CANNOT MAKE INFORMED DECISIONS ABOUT THE MARKET WITHOUT OUR INPUT.

Finally, we’ll see whether city officials choose to address new concerns about the proportion and types of affordable housing called for in the guidelines. Last week, the Open City blog published an analysis challenging a section of the proposal declaring, “the mixed-income character of the neighborhood must be reflected in the development plan for the sites.”

The author, Jerome Chou, wrote:

The guidelines propose what is being called the “50-50 plan”: 50% of the new units (or about 500 units) will be offered at market rate and 50% will be offered for other income levels, including 30% for people making up to $40,000 a year for a family of four.  Graphic designer Manuel Miranda and I looked at the details of the proposal, and compared them to data on the income levels of existing residents. Manuel’s graphic below, imagined as a kind of community bulletin or “Public Notice,” shows that while the guidelines do propose a mixed-income development, the lion’s share of new apartments—the market rate units—will be affordable only to a tiny fraction of the current residents of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

The report echoes the sentiments of Damaris Reyes, who has questioned why the definitions of middle and moderate income households were so high (relative to the neighborhood’s median income). Supporters of the guidelines, on the other hand, have cautioned against making too much of the current formulas. They point to the following caveat embedded in the community board’s planning document:

Income limits are 2010 approximations for a family of four based on the most recently available data and will change from year to year; they are shown here for illustrative purposes only.

CB3 and the city are probably at least two years away from developing a final plan. The income requirements for various types of housing will be set at the end of the process.  For this reason, some community activists believe. it’s a bit too early to be making definitive judgments about affordable housing on SPURA.

One other note. We had the chance to meet Jerome Chou a few weeks ago. He is one of five “organizing fellows” working on Open City, which is an interesting project devoted to reporting about urban change in the Chinese communities of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn (and the surrounding areas). He’s director of programs at the Design Trust for Public Space. Jerome was a community planner for the city of Baltimore and has degrees in Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. We think he’s going to add a lot of valuable context to the ongoing SPURA conversation and we’re looking forward to reading his future stories.

Community Board 3’s land use, housing and zoning committee meets tonight at 630pm, at University Settlement, 184 Eldridge Street. As always, the meeting is open to the public.