City Planning Commission Holds Seward Park Public Hearing
The City Planning Commission hosted a public hearing yesterday on the Seward Park Mixed-Used Development Plan, a proposal that would transform nine parcels adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge that have languished for four decades. A sweeping land use proposal garnered the endorsement of Community Board 3 in May. As part of the public review process (ULURP), the Planning Commission and the City Council must now weigh in before developers begin submitting proposals.
The land use document allows for 900 apartments, up to 600,000 square foot of commercial space, a new Essex Street market, a small park, a hotel and community facilities.
At the meeting, the proposed plan enjoyed support from the Mayor’s office and members of the community board, as well as from other local leaders and activists. Jeff Mandel, on hand to voice the Mayor Bloomberg’s support for the plan, commended the community board for building consensus on the Lower East Side regarding the contentious issue of the Seward Park site. “They have been fantastic leaders in marshaling a wide range of stakeholder input,” he said. Mandel added that the community board’s efforts are especially impressive given the fact that agreement on a redevelopment vision had been so elusive for so many years.
“This is the kind of responsible and balanced development the community surrounding the Seward Park sites would like to see come to fruition,” said new CB3 chair Gigi Li. “For too long the development of Seward Park has been a hurdle that the community has not been able to overcome.”
Some lauded the plan’s guarantee that 50 percent of the apartments developed will be permanently affordable, noting the Lower East Side’s soaring rents and limited housing options for low and middle income residents. In the days leading up to CB3’s endorsement of the development plan, the issue of permanent affordability became a hotly debated issue. The city finally agreed that the affordable apartments would remain so not just for 60 years, but “in perpetuity.”
A few of those offering testimony yesterday asserted that the plan does too little for lower-income residents, since the income requirements are, in their view, too high for the neighborhood. “Some have said 50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing,” said Soo Young Lee, one of the leaders of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. “But what is that something when it’s out of our reach?” Members of the Coalition turned up in large numbers to demand that 100 percent of the housing developed on the Seward Park site be reserved for low-income tenants, and described plans to collect 10,000 signatures in opposition to the planned development.
Others said they were satisfied with the affordable housing outlined in the plan, stating that the fiscal realities of development demanded the inclusion of middle class and market-rate apartments. Tito Delgado was a tenant of a Seward Park building that was torn down in 1977 in the name of urban renewal. He’s happy the community has finally come together, even if the levels of affordable housing are not what he hoped they would be. “This was not easy to accept 50 percent when 100 percent of the people put out were poor people,” he said. “But there is a reality, and I accept that reality.”
Fran Marino, a longtime Lower East Side resident representing St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street, also voiced approval of the plan because it would finally bring about improvements. “I’ve been watching those empty lots for 40 years,” she said. “We support the 50-50 compromise, although there is a much greater need for low-income housing in the Seward Park area.”
Another subject of extended discussion was the possible inclusion of a public school in the development plans. While the city has maintained there’s no need for another school in the area, community leaders have adamantly argued otherwise. Brett Leitner, a Grand Street resident, argued, “the difference between this being a good project and a great project lays in how it addresses the question of education… As I am sure the issue comes down to funding, it would be pennywise and pound foolish not to see the impact that 900 new units of housing will have on an already strained district.” CB3 member Herman Hewitt agreed, saying that families with children moving into Seward Park housing units would make demands on local schools untenable. “Where will those children go in this neighborhood if you don’t have a school?” he asked.
Linda Jones, the co-chair of CB3’s land use committee, addressed other priorities laid out in the community board’s resolution on SPURA but omitted from the city’s plan. She called on the city to, “conduct extensive and credible outreach to identify, locate and notify all qualifying former site tenants about the proposed new housing development, their continued right to return to the site, and the application process for priority inclusion in the new housing that is built.”
On a separate issue, Jones called on the city to accommodate the needs of vendors in the current Essex Street Market in the event (as expected) that a new market is built on the south side of Delancey Street. Merchants, she emphasized, should pay rents in the new facility that are similar to what they’re paying “at the time of moving.” They should also be compensated for moving their businesses to the new location, she said.
City Council members Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez have vowed to press the city to include all of CB3’s “planning principles” in the final plan. Another big priority for the community: limits on big box stores. In the current proposal, stores of any size would be allowed; CB3 wanted a 30,000 square foot limit. The Planning Commission will schedule a vote on the Seward Park plan sometime before the end of August. The City Council will then schedule another round of hearings and a vote.