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Another Point of View on the Future of SPURA

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Photograph for The Lo-Down by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

In the last several weeks, we have had a good deal of coverage about SPURA, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. For 40 years, the community has been haggling about the redevelopment of the five under-utilized parcels near the Williamsburg Bridge. This year, Community Board 3 took another crack at consensus building in the neighborhood. And affordable housing groups stepped up their organizing efforts. Now, Yori Yanover, the editor of the Grand Street News has joined the conversation. In the spirit of representing all points of view on one of the Lower East Side's most important issues, here's the full text of his column:

By Yori Yanover/Grand Street News

Over the past 40+ years there have been two
symmetrically opposed views on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area
(SPURA), those five or so razed lots between Delancey and Grand and
Clinton and Essex Streets.

One view was expressed most emphatically
by the organizers of a rally last month, under the banner of "We Want
Justice at SPURA." The details were reminiscent, as they often are, of
the plight of Palestinian refugees: "42 years of vacant land in the
heart of the neighborhood… 2,000 homes demolished for urban renewal…
The Lower East Side is still waiting for community revitalization and
affordable housing on the site…" The rally also demanded "priority for
tenants displaced in 1967."

I doubt that justice for the displaced is
the burning issue—the original tenants are not currently huddled in
relocation camps. The rally was, most of all, about answering the need
for affordable housing in Manhattan. And "affordable" means low income.

Which brings us to the opposing view,
that the Lower East Side already has the second largest concentration
of low income residents in Manhattan – some 15 thousand households
below the poverty line. Why should this neighborhood shoulder an even
greater burden of low income housing? What we need, instead, are
amenities: a modern shopping mall, a movie theater, a park.

The popular perception is that the
dispute over SPURA is between local "haves" and "have nots." The more
well-to-do residents of co-ops and condominiums naturally oppose
additional low income housing, while the NYCHA constituency want to
expand it. I seriously wonder if this is the case. While many of our
burgeoning families are sharing very small apartments, it does not
necessarily mean that what the Lower East Side needs are 2,000 more
residential units below the poverty line.

The problem is that no one is organizing
angry rallies in favor of a shopping mall and a public piazza in SPURA.
Housing is simple and urgent enough an issue to serve as a gathering
point for militants. But how do you get middle- and lower middle-class
folks to go militant over their quality of life needs?

I fear that, as in most political
debates, the more militant and better organized advocates for SPURA’s
future will win the day, if not in this round then in the next. And
once the political process starts rolling, we’ll see a new cluster of
low income apartment buildings rise across the street from the Seward
Park co-op. It would mean further straining the already dwindling
resources of our neighborhood safety net. It would also mean
permanently giving up hope of turning Grand Street between the FDR
Drive and Allen into a thriving cultural area.

It’s time to get militant about the
future of SPURA, because whatever develops on those five lots will
certainly alter our lives down here.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Yori,
    A provocative piece.
    Before anything: “Affordable housing” in the context of SPURA has not yet been defined — so your assumption of housing solely for those “below the poverty line” just isn’t reflected by the facts.
    As always in this debate, ethnic and political factors are obscuring how close these “opposing” viewpoints really are.
    I want to emphasize that even those of us in the “affordable housing” camp agree that we need mixed-use development: that means housing, open space, retail, and culture.
    Additionally, the findings of our report “Community Voices and the Future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area” are consistent with your demand for a park — “Open space for recreation and relaxation” was the third most popular option with the survey’s working-class respondents.
    The question this time is simple: How can Delancey Street once again be the Lower East Side’s main street, with housing and recreation for working people and middle-income people — the very people the Seward Park Co-Op was built to house.
    I look forward to further dialogue and debate — indeed, an honest exchange of ideas is crucial to finding real consensus on this issue.
    Joel Feingold
    Organizer, GOLES

  2. Joel —
    Thank you for your kind and honest note.
    Even if the powers that be will decide that Affordable Housing should be given to people making between $60 and $90 thousand, meaning the teachers, nurses, police and firefighters serving the city, we should still be offended, as a neighborhood, by the choice of targeting us for those dwellings, using public funds. What’s wrong with the corner of Madison and 57th Street?
    The idea that the Lower East Side should absorb even more assisted population is inherently racist and completely unacceptable. In that sense we haven’t advanced at all since the immigration wave of 1905.

  3. What is wrong with affordable housing, along with commercial retail space, a movie theater, a science lab, open rec space in what is now a big parking lot dump. Practically all new construction on the LES is luxury and market rate, hotels on Rivington and Allen Street, new condos etc. Look at the Blue Building on Delancey, look at the new luxury apt buildings along essex street by east broadway, look at the conversion of the old Forward building, not to mention the dormitory on Delancey Street, why is it racist to build affordable housing when hundreds of thousands of people are foreclosed from their homes and people need housing. If you haven’t noticed, so many upscale condo and luxury rental buildings throughout NYC have lost financing and we have empty lots or partially constructed lots. Now is the time for affordable true middle income housing. I am not in favor of NYCHA projects, but why not build housing for teachers, brick layers, plumbers, secretaries, nurses. Trust me, new development on SPURA will not decrease property values on Grand Street. Let us all come together in the true spirit of cooperation.

  4. Practically all new construction on the LES is luxury and market rate
    Wrong. Even as we speak there’s a large low income housing building reaching completion at Pitt and Houston. Also, Avalon is an 80/20 development. And between 1975 and 2005, all new housing, some 1500 units, was low income. If you combine all the new luxury units built since the “discovery” of the LES in the late 1990, I doubt that you’ll have 1500 units.
    why is it racist to build affordable housing when hundreds of thousands of people are foreclosed from their homes and people need housing
    If you take the time to study Congress’s intent in its integration legislation since 1964, you’ll see that ghettoizing all the poor people in one neighborhood is precisely the opposite of what the legislator intended. I am strongly in favor of public funds going to low and moderate income housing, but should a neighborhood whose resources are already supporting some 15,000 low income families be expected to shoulder 2000 more? All our safety net resources are bursting at the seams and some are already being cut back. Why not allocate parts of midtown Manhattan to those new units? Why not the Upper East Side?
    Trust me, new development on SPURA will not decrease property values on Grand Street
    That’s an open-ended statement which you should define better. New development of what? Also, as I plan to live here through my old age, I’m less concerned with property values than with quality of life, including our water and sewer systems and our street traffic and parking. If you read my opinion pieces regularly you’d know that I’m as opposed to new luxury housing down here as I am to low income.

  5. So basically you want no housing neither middle income nor low income nor luxury . That simply is unreasonable. Building moderate income housing (NOTE NOT NYCHA) along with commercial space be it a science lab, a movie theater, with a nice recreation space and/or something that can provide our youth with jobs and internships would be ideal. Our sewer line will not be compromised at all. You indicate that 1500 low income housing has already been built but do you know how much luxury end housing have been built? I’d venture to say equal if not more considering the hotels and condos and luxural rentals all over. Let’s meet and come to a common ground. Let’s reach a truce. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

  6. Voice of Reason – SPURA is five lots bordering on a sixth which has a historic synagogue and a modern old-age home. I think an imaginative architect could turn this area into a stunning park, with a museum, a concert hall, several small theaters, underground parking, maybe even a minor league stadium. Trees, bushes, kiosks, that’s what the neighborhood needs desperately. We are the most crammed neighborhood on the eastern seaboard — why would you want even more people moving in?

  7. Just to add some context to the conversation, here are the guiding principles CB3 passed earlier this year:
    Principles
    1. Preserve the mixed-use residential character (MURC) of the neighborhood.
    2. Establish a district more in keeping with current planning principles of contextual design.
    3. Stabilize the mixed-income character of the neighborhood through various forms of housing, including
    rental and home ownership. Any low, moderate, and middle-income housing component shall remain so
    in perpetuity.
    4. Exemplify good design and sound environmental principles.
    5. Develop the area to optimize its residential potential.
    6. Anchor the community with cultural and civic amenities to benefit residents (community) of all ages.
    7. Any commercial development shall promote a diversity of goods, services, and price points.
    8. Consider the historical significance of the Essex Street Market and feasibility and purpose of
    preservation or adaptive reuse.
    9. Prioritize housing for current CB3 residents.
    10. Maximize the potential for local construction jobs.
    11. First priority should be given to Tenants at Title Vesting (TATV) – the former site tenants. The city shall
    make diligent efforts to locate them.

  8. Ed,
    You’re missing one.
    Here’s the full list.
    1. Preserve the mixed-use residential character (MURC) of the neighborhood.
    2. Establish a district more in keeping with current planning principles of contextual
    design.
    3. Stabilize the mixed-income character of the neighborhood through various forms of
    housing, including rental and home ownership. Any low, moderate, and middleincome
    housing component shall remain so in perpetuity.
    4. Exemplify good design and sound environmental principles.
    5. Develop the area to optimize its residential potential.
    6. Anchor the community with cultural and civic amenities to benefit residents
    (community) of all ages.
    7. Any commercial development shall promote a diversity of goods, services, and
    price points.
    8. Consider the historical significance of the Essex Street Market and feasibility and
    purpose of preservation or adaptive reuse.
    9. Prioritize housing for current CB3 residents.
    10. Maximize the potential for local construction jobs.
    11. First priority should be given to Tenants at Title Vesting (TATV) – the former site
    tenants. The city shall make diligent efforts to locate them.
    12. The RFP(s) shall be awarded pursuant to these guiding principles. Maximization of
    city revenue from the sale of the land shall be a secondary consideration.

  9. I’m totally with you on this issue Yori. As opposed to most other issues where we are at completely opposite ends of the argument (parking, traffic “calming” initiative, i.e. expanded bike lanes, etc.).
    We are newer residents of Seward Park (under 3 years).
    The nabe needs plenty of amenities, parks/open space chief among them. Plenty. Let’s start with a workable supermarket (“fine” fare is a misnomer if ever there was, c’mon). The problem with the lack of amenities in the area is really the area itself. The populace that is. If one wants to shop for items other than bialy’s, donuts and 99-cent junk one really needs to travel elsewhere. There is no decent gift shop, card store, supermarket. Oh and let’s not even get into the restaurant issue where every proposal for a restaurant seeking to serve alcohol is villified and characterized as a “disco”, “not family-friendly if open late”, etc. My point is the area seems to my eyes as over-tipped in the number of people who qualify as low-income. There are thousands of units of NYCHA surrounding the co-ops. What shopping mall or big-box store would be interested in addressing the consumer needs of these folks? Another Rite-Aid?
    Have you been out to the BJ’s store in Maspeth and seen the mall where it is housed? It’s hideous, with most of the retail space in that mall with either “going out of business” signs in the window or just plain vacant. That is the kind of space the nabe would wind up with if a “mall” were constructed in spura. Space should be mixed-use but on a much smaller scale than may be envisioned, with park/rec space a priority. Anyone who cannot see that is really suffering from vision problems. Open your eyes and look around folks.

  10. Chi Chi
    I respect your thoughtful comment, but I must disagree because when I open my eyes I see nothing but luxury sky towers and hotels being built. I open my eyes and I see families on the brink. why is it so difficult to have moderate income housing for nurses, teachers, physical therapists, hospital workers, senior center employees, police officers and firefighters etc. I agree that this community is maxed out with low income but why not have real middle income housing along with card shops and other commercial space. I agree we have nothing but bad supermarkets and 99c stores. what is this resistance to moderate/middle income housing? I don’t want to hear cop outs like our sewer systems can’t handle it!

Comments are closed.

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