Michael Tumminia, president of the Seward Park Co-op, says 43 years is long enough to wait for redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). In a recent interview with The Lo-Down, he acknowledged, “the Grand Street co-ops have been perceived as one of the key forces preventing development.” But Tumminia, head of Grand Street’s largest residential complex added, the Seward Park Co-op “doesn’t want to be one of the forces stopping development. We want to help get something done.”
In the four decades since 2-thousand homes (along with many businesses) were demolished, the city-owned SPURA parcels have been the subject of many legendary battles. In recent years, Grand Street residents have advocated for the development of market rate apartments or commercial enterprises – while opposing demands from affordable housing groups to build low-income and middle income units. Along the way, they’ve had a powerful ally by their side, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (a Grand Street resident himself).
But Tumminia believes the time might just be right to make a deal. “I think as long as it’s done in a way that’s fair to everyone in the community, there should be both market rate and affordable housing built on those lots, in addition to commercial uses” he said. Tumminia hopes the majority of the apartments will be market rate, but significantly, he is willing to entertain the idea that at least some units would be subsidized. He agrees with the conventional wisdom that the market will determine what’s possible. Even most affordable housing advocates concede that no-large scale project would be feasible without the involvement of a market-rate developer.
As part of a strategy to engage on the issue, Pietro Filardo of the Seward Park Board of Directors, recently became a public member of Community Board 3’s SPURA task force. Tumminia told me the board does not have an official position on what should be built, but he believes their involvement in the process can help bridge the divides in the neighborhood. “We all know compromise is only possible if everyone is at the negotiating table and everyone accepts that they’re not going to get everything they want,” he said. “We want to see some investment in our community.”
Tumminia suggested developing the SPURA parcels could be a boon to the neighborhood. He favors “mixed-use” development, incorporating residential units, open space, retail stores and cultural facilities. “At the end of the day,” he said, “what we’re talking about is employment opportunities, more people coming down here, adding to the tax base, investing in our community.” But he also said the Co-op would be pushing to make sure the infrastructure is in place to support a large influx of new residents and businesses. Among their top concerns: adequate transportation, police protection, schools and parking.
The Seward Park Co-op – located just to the south of the SPURA parcels – consists of more than 1700 apartments. The complex was built by labor unions in 1957 as a middle-income cooperative. Prices were capped at a few thousand dollars per room – any shareholder opting out was required to sell his apartment back to the co-op for – more or less – the original price. Like its Grand Street neighbors, Seward Park voted in the late 90’s to become a free market development. Tumminia said Seward Park shareholders have a right to protect their investment by ensuring that future development doesn’t damage the equity they have built up in their homes. He’s convinced a balanced, multi-use facility (with a mixture of housing types) would make the neighborhood more appealing and dynamic.
There are a good number of Grand Street residents who contend there’s already enough affordable housing on the Lower East Side. They cite statistics showing the neighborhood has the second highest number of subsidized/low income apartments in the city. But Tumminia told me the key is how Community Board 3 ends up defining the term, affordable housing. “Are we talking about affordable housing that teachers and police officers and city employees can afford?,” he asked.
The CB3 committee will not discuss how to define “affordability” until the spring or summer. Some Grand Street residents have expressed alarm at the prospect of more public housing in the neighborhood. But the truth is, no one on the committee has advocated new NYCHA developments on the SPURA parcels. The more likely scenario: a specified number of low income and middle income apartments, subsidized by a private developer (possibly augmented by government programs). In general terms, housing is considered affordable if it consumes no more than 30% of a family’s income. In New York City that translates into about $925/month for a low income household (those earning less than 80 percent of the city’s median income, $36,500).
On various issues during the past few months, Tumminia has reached out to his counterparts in the other cooperatives on Grand Street; East River, Hillman and Amalgamated. The developments have (to put it mildly) not always enjoyed the warmest relations. But the lines of communication are now open. The developments collaborated, for example, in the recent campaign to save the Pitt Station Post Office (located in the Seward Park Co-op). Now these new relationships will now be tested. It remains to be seen how Tumminia’s point of view will be received in the buildings to the east of Seward Park.
For the moment, elected officials and city planners are giving the community board room to work, in hopes a consensus plan will emerge. Tumminia said he hopes, when the time is right, the neighborhood’s elected representatives will play a more active role. Silver has said he’d support a community-based plan if it has broad support. District 1’s new City Councilmember, Margaret Chin, has made affordable housing on the SPURA parcels a high priority.
Tumminia is optimistic that Seward Park’s involvement now will make a positive difference down the road and that the community will eventually coalesce around a plan everyone can embrace. “I think there could be a meeting of the minds as far as what makes sense. I think Seward Park believes that being in the middle of the conversation will help get something done,” he said.