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TLD Interview: University Settlement’s Michael Zisser

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Every month, 23 community activists gather in a meeting room on the Lower East Side in the pursuit of a worthy but elusive goal: an agreement on the redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA).  Under the auspices of Community Board 3, they’re struggling to overcome 40 years of indecision and dissension over the fate of five parcels near the Williamsburg Bridge.  Michael Zisser, the executive director of University Settlement, is taking part in the painstaking deliberations, as a public member of CB3’s zoning, land use and housing committee. Last week, I sat down with him at the Settlement’s Eldridge Street headquarters for an in-depth conversation about SPURA, the largest city own development site south of 96th Street.

The head of the oldest settlement house in the country, Zisser has been a fixture on the Lower East Side for more than 20 years. He was a key figure several years ago in the redevelopment of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area. University Settlement has a seat on the CB3 panel, but is also part of a neighborhood coalition that conducted visioning sessions and a survey known as “SPURA Matters.”  I asked Zisser why he felt it was important to become involved in a debate that has divided the community for a generation.”it’s a key community development issue that the Settlement couldn’t avoid,” he explained. “We decided this time around we needed to be engaged.”

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

Zisser said it’s important to him that everyone has a “voice” in what’s ultimately decided:

The point of SPURA Matters is to allow for the voice. That’s the logic behind it. That’s what it was about – is giving voice to people. We did think we had a role in having,  whatever that voice was, expressed. We didn’t go in with a position. We still don’t have a position. As University Settlement we don’t have a position about what ought to happen. We have a position on the process, which we thought was important. Did we think our participants needed a voice? Yes. And a lot of our participants, most of them are either Asian or Latino, and “voice” is a little harder for those populations than for some others in any kind of political engagement… The more immigrant you are the harder it is to feel you have a voice. We also felt we had expertise. We were one of the major players in the Cooper Square process, which even though there was stuff that didn’t work out, more or less, worked. Everyone in the community knows that. So just in terms of what process can do, we’ve sort of been there.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Cooper Square was considered the longest-running dispute over an urban renewal site in the city. Then, in 1996, community groups and government officials finally came together, worked out their differences and (after years of negotiation) agreed on a plan. The result was the Avalon, the gleaming, mixed-use development on Houston and the Bowery. The project includes the Houston Street Center, shared by University Settlement and the Chinatown YMCA. Zisser is optimistic the Cooper Square experience can help inform a new deal to develop the SPURA parcels:

The best part f the Cooper Square’s process was everyone’s agreement to participate and to accept the outcome, even if any individual person or organization was unhappy. We sort of accepted that we’d all be equally unhappy in order to achieve a reality. I believe that about Seward Park – that the timing is just there. This is the time to do it. With Cooper Square, it was played around with for 40 years until everyone said ‘this is it man,’ let’s just get this done. I believe that’s the same feeling about Seward Park.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

The last redevelopment plan crumbled in 2003, after residents of the Grand Street cooperatives and affordable housing advocates clashed bitterly over a proposal from the city. I asked Zisser whether he felt the tone in the neighborhood had changed since then:

I’m not sure it’s different from other places. It’s a highly politicized neighborhood. There are still many factions. Everything in the world is personal. I have never found anything that’s not – deeply personal. All that being said, most of us believe the timing is right to overcome these things and make a deal… The politics are a little more mellow. The (Lower East Side) rezoning passing (two years ago) gave some credibility to community planning.

Late last year, CB3 briefly suspended the negotiations, after a vigil/protest on the SPURA parcels that committee chairman David McWater said undermined “the spirit of cooperation” on the panel. But now, they’ve returned to work, putting off the contentious issue of affordable housing for the moment — while less controversial urban design issues are hashed out. Zisser said it’s an approach that seems to be working:

I think in its own rather strange, somewhat inefficient way – it’s actually moving along. It is inevitably going to get to a place that is much more difficult. Everyone knows that. Everyone’s waiting… It’s hard to challenge the process when somehow we manage to get through the meetings and not kill each other. It’s moving towards a point where 95-percent of the stuff will be agreed upon. The only really important stuff is the last 5-percent. Everyone knows it. Everyone’s behaving.

And what about the “really important stuff,” that last five percent? “Everyone would agree that it’s going to be a matter of the percentage of affordable,” Zisser said.  “I don’t think that anyone… would accept the low end of the city’s historic trends, but I don’t know what the high end is because there are all kinds of examples.” During the building boom that ended two years ago, many developments were built with 80-percent market rate housing and 20-percent affordable housing. At Avalon Bay, the city required the builder to set aside 25-percent of the units (177 apartments) for low income residents. The term “affordable” means different things to different people. In the Avalon project, a family of four had to earn less than $38-thousand/year to qualify. Zisser senses that. even on this difficult issue, a consensus can be reached:

This may be completely naive. But I think they will now figure out a percentage mix. That’s the fight. That will be the last discussion. It will go anywhere, in my view, from 25 to 30, 35, 40. Really depends on the definition of affordable, and they may need – this neighborhood’s too smart for that – so they may need different definitions of affordable.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

Many community activists say the government has a moral obligation to build affordable housing on SPURA and to fulfill a promise made to families displaced a generation ago. Residents on Grand Street, however, argue that the neighborhood already has more low-income housing than any other section of the city.  Zisser acknowledges that gentrification is a powerful force on the LES, but he believes it’s important to keep the changes that have occurred in perspective:

The Lower East Side has not changed as much as people think, statistically… It’s a very interesting perception. If you walk down Ludlow Street it’s changed. If you look at the actual numbers for the neighborhood, it hasn’t changed very much, which is why the Settlement still does so well. There’s one population (low income) the newspapers forget. South of Houston, there’s a lineup of fairly unattractive public housing buildings. You jump a street – it (the cooperatives) used to be affordable when it was still under protection (before becoming market rate), and now what are those units going for?

In taking the temperature of the community, figuring out what people really want on the SPURA parcels, Zisser believes the SPURA Matters report is an important tool. Next month, the coalition will present its findings to the CB3 committee. Although they made significant efforts to reach out to the entire neighborhood, there was minimal participation from Grand Street residents. I asked Zisser whether he believed the report accurately reflects the community as a whole:

There’s no such thing as one reflection of a community… They made efforts. I think it’s actually a pretty good report. It’s very interesting information. Does it have statistical validity? No, of course not. That’s not the point… The intention was to engage people and to have a voice, and they did a very good job, using different forums. I don’t think anyone would argue it’s a comprehensive look… It was very good work. Because it’s not a comprehensive reflection of the community does not make it less valuable, any more than if the community board had done it… The community board is also skewed. That doesn’t limit it’s importance… The only thing that’s uncertain now is how it all converges. At some point everyone has to say, ‘I don’t care what track you’re on, because there are multiple tracks, we have to converge.’

Zisser said other factors are converging to make deal-making, not only in the community, but in the marketplace as well, more appealing. The anemic economy, he suggested, is actually working in their favor:

This is the perfect time to do it. It will take four years to do this, so any (developer) who gets in will know they’re planning for the upside. All the developers know that. This is when they’re playing around a little bit. Some developers get good deals buying what someone else screwed up. It will be difficult pricing it, but we’re probably a year or so away from that. We’re actually fortunate we can discuss this without market pressure.

During CB3 meetings, city planners have suggested they could begin accepting bids from developers by the middle of next year.  Zisser agrees with the conventional wisdom that the project will require the involvement of for-profit and not-for-profit companies. “I don’t think there’s any question the city will have to figure out a way for some part of the development to be done by not-for-profit developers,” he said. Another major consideration: how the city decides to value the land. “You can sell public land for zero, which they do sometimes, or you can sell it for market rate,” he said. “There’s no law. When the Settlement is trying to get a piece of property from the city, we’re expecting to get it for nothing. The city could just as easily sell it for millions of dollars.”

But the biggest consideration of all is a political one.  Underlying the entire debate about SPURA is the unspoken but ever-present question: what does Shelly think? It’s widely believed Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s opposition to the 2003 plan was a major factor in the Bloomberg Administration decision to shelve its proposal.  This time around, the Speaker (a Grand Street resident himself) has obliquely signaled he would not stand in the way if there’s a plan emerges that has broad community support.  Zisser’s assessment?

At the moment I believe, if the community reaches reasonable consensus that from the Speaker down, they’ll approve it. I believe that’s what’s creating the stability of it right now. Everyone knows it and that’s why no one is being shrill or unreasonable. Everyone gets it. A year or two ago, one person would have said something and it would have ended the discussion. This time everyone understands that, if there’s not middle ground, there’s no deal. But if they do get to the middle ground, a deal is inevitable. I can’t believe that Shelly’s not informed all the time about what’s going on and I’d think it would make his life easy if we reached consensus. And this is something I think did come out blatantly with SPURA Matters… We don’t get there with a uniform answer. It’s what happened in Cooper Square. You could be unhappy but there can be no reasonable dissent.

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