SPURA – the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area – has been one of the most contentious issues on the Lower East Side for 40 years. Repeated efforts to redevelop the five parcels in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge have produced ugly public confrontations, racially charged name-calling and bitterness. But in recent months there’s been new optimism, as a remarkably diverse panel of neighborhood “stakeholders,” meeting monthly, inched towards a consensus.
That harmony was briefly broken this past week, as a group of 20 to 30 residents descended on the Community Board office where the SPURA meetings are held. They had come to listen to a briefing by an official with the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC). When the chair of Community Board 3, Dominic Pisciotta, announced the city had backed out of the meeting at the last minute, they erupted in anger.
The residents, alerted to the meeting by the affordable housing organization, GOLES, were more than a little upset they had not been told about the cancellation in advance. One man said, “It is definitely inappropriate… The Seward Park issue is affecting a lot of people here. We all took our time to get here, on short notice.” Susan Stetzer, district manager, told them SPURA was removed from the agenda posted on the community board’s web site, a day or two before the meeting. They were not appeased.
A member of the committee, Harvey Epstein, echoed their concerns. “It really affects this community in a negative way, especially if we’re going to work with (the city) as partners,” he said. He proposed writing a letter to the EDC saying that it’s “not really appropriate, after we advertise a public meeting, a day before to say you can’t attend.”
Pisciotta, sitting in for committee chair Dave McWater, responded, “I don’t think that’s something we need to put in a resolution. I’m planning on talking to them about that. I really don’t think we need to make a Community Board statement about it. This is, of course, an important issue to the community, but this happens every once in awhile in a lot of other committees where things have to be pulled off the agenda at the last minute. I will definitely be trying to talk to them more about this.”
But the residents pressed Pisciotta for the name and number of the city official who canceled. “I’m not going to give you that information,” he said. They were, to put it mildly, displeased:
- “You’re the Community Board. We’re the community. You’re supposed to be representing the community’s interests to the city.”
- “I can guarantee there will be at least 175 people bombarding that office, letting them know it’s inconsiderate to cancel a meeting with such a short time and not contact people
- “You’re just like throwing dirt at us.”
- “It’s not fair”
- “It’s unacceptable.”
- “I grew up in this neighborhood. It’s my neighborhood.”
Finally, Epstein interjected, saying, “we’re all on the same page.” He pointed out that it was the EDC, not the community board that backed out. As the complaints grew louder, he gave the residents the name of the EDC’s public relations coordinator, essentially ending the mini-conflict.
After the meeting, Pisciotta reiterated his commitment to discussing the cancellation with the city. Explaining that he believes it is important to maintain a good working relationship with the EDC, Pisciotta told me he felt it was inappropriate to give out their contact information.
The single largest issue before the committee is how much affordable housing to build on the SPURA site. Over the years, it has divided Latino and Jewish residents in the neighborhood. The group that came to this week’s meeting was accompanied by the pastor of St. Mary’s Church, a major center of Latino life on the Lower East Side.
At the end of the evening, one veteran of past SPURA battles quipped, “That was nothing.” Indeed, most everyone agreed the skirmish would not undermine the committee’s work.