McWater Threatens to Suspend Work of SPURA Committee

David McWater, chairman of a CB3 committee trying to come up with a plan for the redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), threatened tonight to put the panel’s work on indefinite hold. For months, the land use panel has been working towards a goal that has eluded the Lower East Side for 42 years: a development proposal all of the neighborhood’s fractured constituencies can accept. But this evening, McWater told committee members he was unwilling to continue deliberations because some factions on the committee were “pursuing their own agendas.”

After a tense 30 minutes of debate, McWater agreed to add SPURA to the December agenda. But he vowed to walk away from the table if future meetings became a forum for protests and name-calling, rather than negotiation and compromise. McWater also said he was “100-pecent certain” city officials, who recently began collaborating with the community board would end their involvement if they sensed the community is divided.

SPURA consists of five parcels that were bulldozed in the name of urban renewal in 1967. Since that time, repeated redevelopment efforts have been stymied. The most recent plan crumbled in 2003, when affordable housing advocates and residents of the Grand Street cooperatives clashed bitterly over the mix of market rate, middle income and low income housing to be built on SPURA. This time, the city and the neighborhood’s elected leaders have mostly stood on the sidelines, waiting to see whether the community board succeeds in bringing the feuding parties together.

SPURA was not on the committee’s agenda tonight, but at the end of the meeting several members of the panel asked whether deliberations on the contentious issue would resume next month. At first, McWater did not answer directly. But pressed by committee members, he explained his concerns. Among them, an episode at last month’s meeting, which McWater missed due to an illness. A group with ties to St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street erupted in anger upon learning that a planned presentation by city officials had been canceled. He also raised questions about a rally on Sunday on the SPURA site, in which at least one committee member encouraged residents to begin attending the community board meetings.

McWater said he felt as though the members of the committee (representing many of the major stakeholders in the community) “took a covenant,” promising to “work in the spirit of cooperation.” The events of the past month, he argued, signaled a lack of commitment to the collaborative process.

Damaris Reyes, executive director of the affordable housing advocacy group, GOLES, said she was “floored” and she took “personal offense” at McWater’s comments. In a heated back and forth, she defended a community visioning process and survey, known as “SPURA Matters.” Reyes took exception to McWater’s characterization of the report as advocating 100-percent affordable housing. She questioned why McWater had not accepted her offer to brief him on the contents of the report. She also argued that members of the larger community need to  be involved in the process – and have an opportunity to offer feedback.

Other members of the committee urged McWater to reconsider. In the end, McWater agreed, and said he would arrange to meet with Reyes about the “SPURA Matters” survey. But acknowledging that everyone at the table possessed the political power to mobilize their supporters and kill any deal, he warned the committee to avoid “an arms race.” McWater said he’d offered to resign as chairman many times, and would have no qualms about doing so rather than presiding over a “repeat of 2003.”

McWater said he believed representatives of the city’s Economic Development Corporation would be willing to return next month for a briefing on the next steps in the process.