CB3 Begins SPURA Design Work
Community Board 3’s Seward Park redevelopment (SPURA) committee got back to work Monday night, after last month’s momentous approval of planning guidelines for the 7-acre parcel in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. Beginning a two-year odyssey to produce a detailed plan for what the city’s architect calls an “iconic site,” community activists got a glimpse of both the promise as well of the pitfalls that lie ahead.
Early in the evening, city officials said they are generally supportive of the guidelines, which call for a mixed-use, mixed income community in the “heart of the Lower East Side.” But they also made it clear they were not prepared to endorse every aspect of the guidelines.
David Quart of the NYC Economic Development Corp. (EDC) told committee members that because city agencies are still reviewing the guidelines point-by-point, he couldn’t give them a lot of detailed feedback:
I can’t give you a lot of specifics tonight in terms of feedback on the guidelines… I can certainly say there’s enough in the guidelines, to say the least, that we all feel on the city side that there is (room) for all of us to work here — we can all come together and realize a plan. For the city, the guidelines really represent an agreement by this committee and the community as a whole for what you’d like to see at the site. But it does not represent a plan. It is a great milestone and will form the basis now for our next steps going forward…Do I think everything that’s in your guidelines – every single thing – can be implemented, is feasible? No I don’t think every single thing is possible. But there’s a lot there for us to work with.. and the city feels this is a positive step.
Quart added that many of the community board guidelines are aligned with the city’s priorities for the site. In the Seward Park project, he said, the city is committed to a mix of residential and commercial uses as well as a range of affordable and market rate apartment types. They also want a plan that will physically “stitch back together” a fragmented section of the city. “We see this as the center of the Lower East Side,” Quart explained. “There are very vibrant communities all around it and we want to reconnect the fabric of the neighborhood.”
Finally, he underscored the EDC’s determination to make sure SPURA is financially self-sufficient, rather than reliant on subsidies. Quart, repeating an argument made numerous times in past meetings, said the EDC’s willingness to sell the parcels for a lot less than they’re worth is, in fact, a kind of subsidy in itself: “The city would not be looking to sell these at fair market value. We would be looking to sell them at an incredible discount, to say the least, and put all of that value into the project so that we can achieve our collective goals.”
While many housing activists on the committee remain determined to push for city, state or federal subsidies — this was not their main focus Monday night. Instead, they zeroed in on the hiring of architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle, a development The Lo-Down reported first early last month. CB3’s Harvey Epstein quizzed Quart as to why the community board was not consulted about the decision. Another member, Barden Prisant, asked whether there was a competitive bidding process.
Quart said the firm was selected among several applicants who responded to an RFP (a request for proposals). He said the city did not discuss the matter with CB3 because it wanted to move forward with the process as quickly as possible. Epstein asked for a copy of the RFP and intimated he’d file of Freedom of Information Request (FOIL) if he didn’t receive it. Quart reluctantly agreed to provide the document. The Lo-Down has also asked to see the RFP. Later Quart said, “We are committed to working in partnership with you. We are committed to working with you every step of the way. I am sure there will be some bumps along the way. But that’s part of a project like this.”
Beyer Blinder Belle was hired to work with the committee for three months on preliminary design issues. Now that the guidelines have been approved, the next task at hand is detailing the plans for each of the 10 parcels. While that’s happening, the city will begin an exhaustive Environmental Impact Review, which will be the subject of a public meeting in late September. Then comes the land use approval process (ULURP), which would also involve public hearings. Finally, the project RFP would likely be issued in late 2012 or early 2013.
Most of Monday’s session was consumed by a power point presentation from Beyer Blinder Belle partner Neil Kittredge.
It began with this image depicting Delancey Street in 1919. Noting the lively street activity resulting from people getting on and off the trolleys before and after they rolled across the Williamsburg Bridge, Kittredge suggested the area was “a hub, a public gathering space,” rather than what it is today, “something resembling a highway.”
Acknowledging the site’s strange history, he also showed images similar to the one posted above, depicting housing units towering over the Williamsburg Bridge. This drawing was part of a project by visionary architect Paul Rudolph in the late 1960’s, re-imagining Robert Moses’ infamous scheme to build a Lower Manhattan Expressway.
Kittredge’s point seemed to be that the SPURA project should be both imaginative and functional:
We’re trying to decide how to create a neighborhood fabric here and a real sense of human scale and streetscape and it’s really about how you get that right. I hope that is what this process is about. It’s part of a neighborhood but it’s also part of an iconic site. It’s part of a crossroads for New York… This is going to be one of the most visible, important and exciting developments that you can see anywhere in Manhattan. It should be innovative and relate to the traditions of the neighborhood. It forms the heart of all of these neighborhoods.
During the meeting, city officials announced that site number 7, the Department of Transportation’s parking garage, would be off limits for development. This is, in part, due to the fact that replacing 350 parking spaces with an underground facility would be prohibitively expensive. But also, David Quart said, it’s become apparent the DOT is unwilling to entertain the idea.
Kittredge noted that plans for site #1, on the corner of Ludlow and Broome, are fairly easy to envision. Given the small size of the lot and the low-scale buildings that surround it, he said whatever is built there should be “relatively intimate.” While Kittredge did not specifically address the future of the Essex Street Market (a controversial issue), he indicated the zoning (which includes an 80 foot height cap) would limit the possibilities on sites 8, 9 and 10. So given these limitations, Kittredge suggested, the most difficult choices for the committee will revolve around the large parcels south of Delancey — sites 2-6.
Kittredge walked panel members through some of the options, based on the current zoning restrictions. One alternative, he said, is to essentially replicate what the neighborhood already has in abundance — a lot of tall buildings surrounded by open space. This concept, known as “towers-in-the-park” was popular in the middle of the past century and is represented by the Seward Park Cooperative on Grand Street, directly across from the SPURA parcels. A rendering (posted above) depicts what more “tower-in-the-park” construction might look like.
These days, urban planners and architects heap scorn on “towers-in-the-park,” preferring what’s known as “contextual design.” A hallmark of the rezoning of the Lower East Side and East Village in 2008, it calls for “produc(ing) buildings that are consistent with existing neighborhood character.” Kittredge showed some drawings to illustrate how “contextual design” might come into play on the Seward Park site. Buildings would be designed to foster human interaction and to create a “dynamic urban environment,” he said.
Kittredge recommended a mix of buildings types — some low-rise — some high rise and a well defined “street wall.” The sketch above was intend to give committee members a sense of how this varied approach might work (it does not depict any specific site). In the next couple of months, there will be many trade-offs to consider. If stakeholders prefer low-slung buildings that take up more “floor area,” there will be less room for open space (street level public squares, green space). If they choose taller buildings, there will be more room for open space. As one participant quipped, it’s a little bit like playing with lego blocks.
Kittredge said his firm would be looking at traffic patterns and street layout in the area. He indicated that, in particular, they needed to get a better handle on how cars access the Williamsburg Bridge. Over time, designers will take a hard look at the feel of each street that would be impacted by the project.
By the end of the evening, committee members seemed excited about the work ahead of them. But at the same time there were concerns about the community’s role in the planning process. Damaris Reyes and Harvey Epstein spoke out in favor of more time for panel members and residents to give feedback about design issues. Epstein also said the community board needed to do a better job of communicating to the public what would occur at each meeting.
CB3 chair Dominic Pisciotta acknowledged these concerns and said he would carve out time at the end of each monthly meeting for resident questions and comments. In the past, CB3 has set aside time for community members to speak at the beginning of each session.
The next SPURA meeting takes place Wednesday, March 30th, at 630pm, at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street.