Community Coalition Releases “SPURA Matters” Report

The Seward Park site, looking south on Delancey Street. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa.
The Seward Park site, looking south on Delancey Street. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa.

A coalition of community groups and the Pratt Center for Community Development have released a comprehensive report examining what residents would like to see done with the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). The initiative, known as “SPURA Matters,” sought feedback from hundreds of people in late 2008 and early 2009, through several public meetings, a large oral history project and written surveys.

SPURA consists of 5 parcels near the Williamsburg Bridge that were bulldozed by the city 40 years ago. They have remained under-developed ever since due to disagreements in the community about how the sites should be used. For the past several months, Community Board 3 has been trying to formulate a plan all factions in the neighborhood and the city can accept.

The project was spearheaded by GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side), the neighborhood housing and preservation organization. But numerous other organizations, including University Settlement, the LES Tenement Museum, St. Mary’s Church and the LES Business Improvement District, were part of the coalition. According to Damaris Reyes, GOLES executive director, there’s a lot of hope in the community that something’s finally going to happen at the SPURA site. The initiative was meant to initiate a conversation and to “help start a community-driven process to put the site back into a broadly productive use.”

The report, prepared by the Pratt Center, took into account the views of 250 people who attended workshops and 300 people who responded to the survey. 60-percent of those who filled out the questionnaire said they wanted to see low and moderate income housing built on SPURA. 32-percent called for a mixture of both market rate and low/moderate income housing. But three-quarters of the respondents said that including market-rate apartments was a “suitable” way to finance affordable housing. One-third indicated the size of the buildings that go up does not matter to them.

There was widespread support for a mixed-use site. While housing was their top priority, respondents wanted to see both small retail businesses and larger businesses like supermarkets and movie theaters. They also expressed a desire for open space (parks), a community center, daycare and health facilities and a cultural center. More generally, residents expressed alarm about the gentrification sweeping the LES – pushing housing costs higher and driving longtime retailers out of business.

The survey participants were split more or less equally between Latinos, Whites and Asians (a small percentage of the respondents were African American). Almost 80-percent live in households that earn $50-thousand/year or less. The report emphasizes that significant efforts were made to reach out to the residents of the Grand Street Co-ops, some of whom have fought vigorously against building low income housing on SPURA:

Because of the importance of hearing from the Grand Street Co-op residential community – major stakeholders in the future of SPURA – the SPURA Matters initiative made concerted efforts to reach out to them.  Volunteers from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) engaged in a year-long door-knocking process in many of those buildings… Through one-on-one discussions about how recent development is affecting the local neighborhood, these volunteers engaged householders in the question of what should be developed at the SPURA site. 175 of them expressed some degree of interest in seeing low and mixed-income housing on the site, and they signed up to learn more market-rate units, accepting bigger buildings in exchange for more affordable units).

The survey does not indicate how many total Co-op residents were interviewed. A workshop set up to solicit their opinions last April was only attended by two people. Within the community board committee developing a statement of priorities for SPURA, there appears to be agreement that there should be an even mix (or something close to it) of low, moderate and market rate housing on the site.

At the most recent CB3 committee meeting, David Quart of the Economic Development Corporation outlined the potential next steps for SPURA. Due to the economic downturn, he said,there’s little hope any developer would sign on to the project now. He recommended moving forward with a master plan, a land use review and then, finally, an RFP (request for proposals from developers). The proposed timetable calls for completing a site plan by next spring and beginning an environmental review at the same time. The land use plan would then be approved in the spring of 2011, followed by the RFP’s. By that time, Quart said, the economy (we hope) will have bounced back and developers will want to build on SPURA.

The committee agreed with this approach – and will discuss the details at next month’s meeting.

If you would like to read the full “SPURA Matters” report, visit the Pratt Center’s web site here.