The Community Board 3 panel responsible for coming up with a plan for the redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) got back to work last week. Chairman David McWater led the group in a conversation about largely uncontroversial urban design issues, pushing the most contentious topics into the background. Last month, he threatened to suspend the talks, raising concerns about a protest organized by affordable housing advocates on the committee. Having agreed to restart them, McWater vowed to focus first on the areas of agreement, as a way of building trust and a spirit of collaboration. The debate about affordable housing, the subject that has derailed so many other SPURA plans, will not be taken up until the end of the process, he said.
The committee has already come up with a set of guiding principles for redevelopment. Now they’re beginning work on a more specific master plan. SPURA consists of 10 parcels on either side of Delancey Street, adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge. Among the decisions ahead for the committee: the height of the buildings, the uses (residential, retail, offices, civic facilities), the amount of open space, etc.
Zoning regulations north of Delancey restrict new construction to 80 feet, while there are no such limitations on the parcels to the south. Fully developed, McWater said, there would be about 1.2 million square feet on all 10 sites. A key question: how many residential units could be developed? Take site #3, for example. City planners say 250 units could go up there, if the building was purely residential and included no retail/commercial space.
Since affordable housing advocates are pushing for a large number of apartments for low income and middle income residents — and other factions on the committee want more market-rate housing, the pressure to build residential units will be intense. But at the same time, most participants want to see other things on the site, including retail, cultural and entertainment facilities and mid-sized professional offices (such as architectural firms).
Near the end of the meeting, committee members discussed how to ensure their plan is followed by the city in the years to come. David Quart of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) said some things, such as affordable housing specifications, could not be included in a master plan. The city, he said, normally allows community boards to draft a separate “Memorandum of Understanding,” detailing other commitments. But several community activists expressed concerns about this approach. CB3 member Harvey Epstein, referencing the controversy surrounding the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, said, the city “made a decision that was in opposition to a lot of the things the community wanted, and it ended up being a big fight… how does it (a side agreement) bind you, especially years from now when there’s a new administration? How can there be more teeth?”
I think you need to get a little further along in your planning, in terms of addressing the program issues and the mix. I guess we’ve talked a lot internally in the city and I’ve said about as much as I can say in terms as what we can commit to. The city wants to see something here, and wants to see something that works for everybody, meaning the community, and the constituents, as well as something the city thinks is going to be feasible. So that’s as much as I can say right now. As we move forward and we get closer toward a real plan for the site we can talk more about how specific we can get… I think you need to be careful you don’t get too specific too early on or else you often end up shooting yourself in the foot, because if you’re dictating to a developer that you have to have a community facility in site 2 that’s 40-thousand square feet, I think you have to be careful.
At last month’s meeting, McWater said he was “100-percent certain” the city would walk away if it sensed the committee was fracturing. In 2003, the last attempt to develop SPURA, community groups erupted in anger when the Bloomberg administration presented its proposal. Since that time, city officials and elected representatives (including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Councilmember Alan Gerson) have emphasized the importance of giving the community the lead role in formulating a plan.
However, Councilmember-elect Margaret Chin, a longtime affordable housing activist, has repeatedly signaled her intention to engage more directly with the committee. She recently urged Mayor Bloomberg to make the issue a high priority, and has had a talk with city planning officials about SPURA. In a conversation with The Lo-Down, Chin said she believed her office could be helpful in a number of ways, especially when it comes to finding new approaches to financing the massive project.
During te course of the evening, McWater gave several residents a chance to speak out about SPURA. A former site tenant, Ed Rudick, recalled many of his neighbors, and said the demolition on Delancey Stret, “traumatized a lot of people, low-middle income people.” Another speaker, Seward Park Co-op resident Uzi Silber, said, “”I moved in because I was looking for affordable housing… It was the beginning of a renaissance. Now you have many, many nice families that have moved in to the neighborhood… It’s about who’s moving in. I didn’t hear anything about that. What kind of population? You’re talking
about class. What kind of people do you really want to move in?”
McWater said there would be two or three town hall meetings to give residents an opportunity to share their views on the developing plan. Next month, he said, the committee would take up the issues of parking and “commercial concerns.”