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McWater Threatens to Suspend Work of SPURA Committee

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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.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this excellent coverage. The intro gives the impression (“protests and name-calling”) that there was disagreement on many sides, but the follow up pursues only chair McWater’s discontent with
    a) community members who complained about the last minute cancelation of the last SPURA discussion,
    b) an unauthorized invitation to community members to participate in the process and
    c) an independently conducted community report.
    It all sounds like an excessively petulant way of apologizing — or not apologizing — for his cancelation the last SPURA discussion. I would guess that for most people, that’s water under the bridge.
    In any case, it seems overly dramatic to respond to community input with offers to resign and threats to discontinue the process, as if community involvement were a sure recipe for disaster.
    The rezoning was passed last year despite community divisions, even though part of that dissent was prominently reported in the media. And to suggest that community opinions should be hidden from the city is not only a foolhardy deceiving of the city and a false picture of the community, it’s an unworkable policy. Those dissenting opinions, if suppressed, will eventually erupt in angry opposition.
    So I don’t think this is what Mr. McWater has in mind. I think he means that the city wants to see “leadership” — a plan that has political will behind it. Whether the community is part of that political will is of minimal concern to the city.
    Mr. McWater has provided that leadership in the past, and has been effective and successful. But he tends to demonize dissent, which leads to polarization of the community. Let the community opine. If the community’s voice is viewed as a threat to power, it will surely become a threat to power.

  2. Thanks, Rob. Last night McWater did, in fact, cite the rezoning debate as a good model to follow – a process in which passionate people expressed their opinions in a respectful way. One committee member suggested he was acting preemtively, at the first sign of conflict,fearing a repeat of 2003’s ugliness. At the end of the meeting there was some discussion about finding a way to involve interested community members without turning the deliberations into “a circus.” I suspect those conversations are continuing today. Petulant? Perhaps. I suppose the alternative point of view is that he decided the time had come to fire a warning shot – a message to everyone on the committee to keep the debate civil. As you have pointed out in the past, the committee is hugely dependent on his leadership. And he knows it.

  3. Well, this is where it’s puzzling — holding the zoning process up as a model. Within the zoning committee there was little dissent — some wanted preservation, others affordable housing. These are not mutually exclusive, they are just different focal interests.
    But between the committee and the community there was ugly and uncivil dissent that I would not describe as model. There was uncivil name-calling on both sides.
    But none of the incivility or dissent impeded the progress of the rezoning. (Although it does seem to have prevented CB3 from committing wholeheartedly to the community planning process in Chinatown. It seems that if CB3 doesn’t run the show, it’s not interested in promoting it.)
    It is, I believe, a flaw in Mr. McWater’s leadership and perspective that he seems to think that any dissent will drive the city away. He made this claim repeatedly during the zoning process, and it was never borne out.
    SPURA faces a much more difficult obstacle: Sheldon Silver. Although Silver does not directly review all city plans, his influence should not be underestimated, especially in his own back yard. He cannot be expected to want his district filled with new voters not loyal to him nor want his loyal voters confronted with a new and unfamiliar community. Until Sheldon Silver gets on board, I expect SPURA will languish another forty years in the desert and all this planning will be just so much fanciful talk.
    I suspect that many feel that for McWater to get this past Silver’s opposition would require a plan designed to please the assemblyman, and such a plan would not satisfy them. I imagine that’s what’s causing unease in this process — the fear that the plan will sell out to Silver. Not good to prejudge a plan based solely on a fear, but good to be watchful; so thanks again for covering it.

  4. Rob nailed this. If Silver does not like the SPURA plan, it will be blocked. Case closed. All factions ought to reach out to Assembly Speaker Silver and demand a compromise or we will have another hole in the ground for 42 more years or until Silver lasts in office, whichever comes first. There should be a meeting of all Lower East Side Elected Officials convening on SPURA to reach consensus and get the hole filled. Good Luck to all.

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