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Urban Planners Begin Working with SPURA Panel

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Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

It felt a little bit like group therapy. Everyone had the opportunity to speak their mind. A professorial facilitator offered encouragement. They even passed around a bowl of grapes and some cookies. But last night’s gathering in a stuffy meeting room on the Bowery was not simply a feel-good get-together. It represented a major new phase in the quest for community consensus about the future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

After a year of deliberations, a CB3 committee is now being guided by two urban planners, John Shapiro and Eve Baron of the Pratt Institute. This was the first of four meetings they’ll be leading this spring and summer intended to, as Shapiro put it,  “bring the group one step closer to a plan that has buy-in and that is implementable.”

In other words, their mandate is to guide the committee towards a proposal that enjoys broad support in the neighborhood — as well as with city agencies and, ultimately, with Mayor Bloomberg. Shapiro has already held about 15 hours of meetings with city planning officials. In the weeks ahead, he and Baron will conduct one-on-one interviews with neighborhood stakeholders. The goal, Shapiro indicated, is to “assess whether a deal can be made.”

One potential area of conflict emerged early on last night. Shapiro said the city expects the project to be “self sustaining.”  There is no more valuable city-owned development site in Manhattan. Some neighborhood groups are pressing for subsidized housing and other community amenities. Shapiro intimated the city is willing to sell the land below market in exchange for some of the things the community wants. But he added, “if you can’t make the private sector work for the public benefit here, where can you make it work?”

Several affordable housing advocates on the committee pushed back on this premise. Val Orselli, of the Cooper Square Committee, questioned why public money (government bonds, for example) couldn’t be used to subsidize more apartments for low income and middle income residents. Harvey Epstein agreed, saying market rate housing should be kept at a minimum, if it’s part of the project at all. Barden Prisant said, “I feel like the city owes it to this community to emphasize affordability.”

Shapiro suggested the city is not the problem. “The problem,” he said, “is this is a diverse community with diverse interests. Anyone here can stop the project.”  Those diverse interests remained mostly below the surface last night. But they were not completely hidden. Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, argued housing (affordable or otherwise) should not be a priority.

He said developing the site for commercial tenants – businesses of all sizes – is what the community really needs. As the economic slump continues to batter the city, he said, the focus should be on “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Echoing what Harold Jacob (the UJC’s chairman) told us recently, Kaplan said 1300 of the 2000 low income apartments lost when the parcels were condemned in 1967 have already been replaced.

During the meeting, each committee member was asked to explain their top priorities for redevelopment. Damaris Reyes, executive director of GOLES, cited affordability, diversity in the commercial spaces that “speaks to the needs of the community and a need for a grocery store. Rabbi Y. S. Ginzberg said housing should reflect the mixed-income diversity of the neighborhood, Jessica Loeser, a former aide to Sheldon Silver, suggested it was fruitless to continue having an old argument about low income vs. market rate housing. “We need a creative solution,” she said. Harvey Epstein, a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center, argued the housing should favor families — emphasizing 2 and 3 bedroom apartments, rather than studios.

Dominic Pisciotta, CB3’s chairman and a Grand Street resident, said market rate housing should be part of the equation. But he suggested the city’s definition of affordability (only households making below $127,000 qualify for subsidies) needs to be reconsidered. Pisciotta said this formula is one of the factors pushing middle class residents away from Manhattan.

Orselli argued it is not enough to replace the low-income housing that existed on the SPURA lots before they were condemned. He suggested the development plan should address the neighborhood-wide shortage of affordable apartments.  He pointed to the example of the Grand Street co-ops. Built as middle class housing, they entered the free market a decade ago. When that happened, 4700 “affordable” units all of a sudden became market rate.

Orselli said some of the middle class housing lost when that occurred can and should be restored through the SPURA project.    He suggested the original Grand Street model – which included a very low purchase price – and required residents to sell their apartments back to the cooperative at essentially the same price if they ever decided to move should be replicated on the SPURA site. But unlike the co-ops, Orselli said, permanent restrictions should be imposed preventing residents from changing their by-laws and becoming market rate developments.

David McWater, the committee chairman, said he didn’t have any preconceived notions about what should be built. He just wants “everyone to get along” and come up with a plan.  Shapiro said he hopes the committee will be able to agree on a draft proposal in the fall and that the community board would vote on a resolution sometime after that. The plan would then be evaluated by city planning officials, who would assess whether private developers would be interested in bidding on the project.  Ultimately, the City Planning Commission and the City Council would also weigh in. Shapiro said it could be a five year process.

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