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TLD Interview: Neighborhood Activist Brett Leitner

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A lot of people have big expectations heading into tonight’s fourth and final mediated discussion on the future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA).  At the last session, in August, facilitator John Shapiro acknowledged members of Community Board 3’s SPURA task force are still far apart on the contentious issue of affordable/market rate housing. He urged participants to use the summer recess to decide whether they have the stomach for compromise.

Brett Leitner, a Grand Street resident who recently became involved in the SPURA debate, hopes the answer is “yes.” As the driving force behind a new organization called SHARE, he believes it’s finally time for the community to set aside old feuds and make a deal. Last week, I sat down with Leitner to discuss the infamous redevelopment site in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge and what his group is trying to accomplish.

Leitner has lived on the Lower East Side for nine years. His wife, Ella, grew up in the Seward Park Cooperative, across the street from the blighted SPURA parcels. Today they are raising two young children in the co-op and have become active in the community.

From the 1948 film, “The Naked City.” SHARE uses this image, shot on Clinton Street (south of Delancey), to show the presence of buidings on SPURA prior to 1967.

Like most Grand Street residents, Leitner walks past the SPURA site every day, and like most people he’s often wondered why such a large piece of land was being used for nothing more than parking.  He was compelled to learn why the government bulldozed these 7 acres in 1967 in the name of urban renewal — and why the site has languished for four decades:

More than anything it made me sad to think that there was once a neighborhood that had been wiped off the map and that 40 plus years later there’s nothing to replace it… It really struck a chord in me. Though this neighborhood might have been deemed somewhat of a slum by the 1960’s, even if it was a rickety old neighborhood, there was still a sense of camaraderie, there were still a lot of resources, businesses, places and destinations that people derived a lot of fond memories from. To erase that off the map and not replace it for over 40 years is nothing short of a tragedy. It’s really akin to ripping the heart out of a neighborhood.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

A few months ago, Leitner began talking about SPURA with co-op neighbors (both longtime shareholders and newer residents), community board members and (to the extent that they have been willing) affordable housing advocates. Following those discussions, he and several other activists started SHARE:

SHARE stands for sustainable housing and retail expansion, and what that name really connotes is the idea of advocating for mixed use of the SPURA site — mixed use in terms of residential and commercial diversity… We feel that for far too long the voices that have dominated the SPURA debate tend to be on either pole. As a group, they are advocating only for low income housing, only for market rate housing or maybe some are advocating for leaving it empty and sticking to the status quo and as a group we find that unacceptable. We really think that compromise is the only way to move forward and we feel there’s an untapped silent majority in this neighborhood of people who are willing to compromise to some degree to seek progress after all these decades of false starts, inaction, political grudges.

There are at least some people who believe that SHARE, if it can mobilize the “silent majority” Leitner mentions, might very well be a game changer in the two-year old SPURA planning process. Until the group emerged three months ago, all of the players were well known to each other and to city officials, who have seen many development plans fizzle in the face of fierce community opposition.  On one side, co-op residents, who were vehemently opposed to more low income housing. On the other, affordable housing advocates, especially Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), determined to fight for low income residents displaced due to gentrification. Leitner likens this scenario to the national political scene in which Tea Party zealots are drowning out more moderate voices:

Why not recognize that some level of compromise is needed to make some progress and move forward? I think the idea of one group dominating the debate, getting everything they want at the expense of another is neither fair nor realistic. I think if these different camps could step back and just realize that they could get some of what they want to accomplish done if it’s going to benefit them and if it’s going to benefit the rest of the neighborhood. It’s really not benefiting anyone to have 0% low income housing on an empty lot, 0% market rate housing on an empty lot or 0% commercial on an empty lot. An empty lot is just that — empty. It’s devoid of anything. What I can’t understand, truthfully, is how these different camps don’t look at that and say, ‘well, wow for 40 plus years we have achieved nothing.

There is, of course, a rich history of political activism and passionate protest on the Lower East Side. The tactics used in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were, no doubt, effective. Leitner, however, believes times have changed and that community activists need to adapt to a new way of effecting change:

For so long, the Lower East Side was on such a downward spiral. I don’t think anyone could have forseen the turnaround that has occurred in this neighborhood. I don’t say that as a criticism of the LES. My wife remembers a time when it wasn’t safe for her to walk around… The changes benefit everyone. There are some who feel that gentrification comes at the expense of some of the long-standing residents here, especially low income residents. I’m really open, I’ve tried to engage with the GOLES organization, to get a sense of where they’re coming from. I have a great amount of respect for GOLES, for (co-op activist) Heshy Jacob… I respect all of them. Sometimes I feel like they are a bit dug in with their narrow swathe of supporters. Of course, there is a natural tendency to look out for your own. I feel oftentimes it’s not really reflective of the present day diversity of the neighborhood.  This is a greatly changed neighborhood, and I think sometimes there’s a little bit of backwards thinking about how this neighborhood was, and therefore should be, vs. reflecting the current day reality and what the neighborhood could be.

So what does Leitner’s organization want to see on the SPURA site?

The idea of it being sustainable is key because we’re in the midst still of a tough recession. Government money is not forthcoming as easily or as fast as it once was. So the idea of making this housing sustainable and viable financially is a core part of us. But we do think it should be reflective of this neighborhood, so we do advocate for some combination of market rate and affordable housing…  We should continue to make this neighborhood cleaner, safer and a nicer destination for families of all stripes. There is a history of this being a more working class neighborhood, so we don’t want to neglect that, and we do want to provide for some percentage of affordable housing, maybe along the lines of what Stuyvesant Town was built for — nurses and firefighters and policemen and teachers. We’d also like some kind of mixed commercial property. We’re trying to avoid anything that’s not reflective of the neighborhood businesses — nothing along the lines of a big box store like a Cosco, but perhaps some medium box stores that would provide resources to round out this neighborhood.

The city has declared any development on SPURA must be financially sustainable. Leitner agrees:

SHARE is about sustainability…. The size and scale and scope of this project will require some private funds… I think building some market rate housing on this land would accomplish a couple of things. I think it would generate a new tax base, from which the city and the neighborhood would benefit. I think it would help a lot of the local businesses. And I think it would help in terms of the gentrifying trend of the Lower East Side. I know there are some who feel that market rate housing would diminish the property values of the co-ops here on Grand Street. I personally feel that’s a specious argument. I can’t imagine how market rate housing that makes this area more of a destination would do anything but increase the property values… I do recognize that there is a huge lack of affordable housing throughout this city, that this neighborhood has a history of being a working class neighborhood and so I think that should be reflected in what gets built on the site… Truth be told, in my efforts to find out what the low income housing advocates are really for in terms of what income level they’re supporting, I’ve never really been successful in pinpointing that. It seems like they are generally for affordable housing but… the concept of affordability is fraught with peril because it means different things to different people.  More than anything, SHARE is open minded. Our mantra is compromise in order to make progress. I’m willing to go to the table with anyone who can make a strong, valid argument for what they want to see built on SPURA.

For the moment, elected officials are staying on the sidelines. Sheldon Silver and Daniel Squadron in Gulick Park last spring.

Members of SHARE have had face-to-face conversations with city planning officials and have spoken with State Senator Daniel Squadron. They have not yet opened a dialogue with State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has reportedly blocked previous redevelopment plans and who will be a key to getting a deal done. A lot of people believe SHARE’s existence could eventually persuade Silver that many co-op residents (part of his political base) want an end to the decades long stalemate.

Leitner thinks the city is determined to break through the morass: “the EDC (NYC Economic Development Corp.) is really charged up. They’ve got the support of the Bloomberg Administration. They’ve got money and resources they want to devote to this project.” And he wants to do whatever he can to help:

I need to try. Somebody needs to try. We’ve gotten great responses and I hope more people will come forward to say, ‘let’s make some progress on this seemingly intractable debate.’ I can’t accept not trying to make some progress. There’s some wind at our backs.

At the same time, Leitner recognizes just how much cynicism exists on the LES when it comes to SPURA.  The first community board meeting he attended on the subject over the summer, Leitner told me, made him realize how disconnected many co-op residents are from the ongoing debate:

I was shocked and dismayed that the co-ops were barely represented at all… GOLES is well organized, well represented. They were energized and engaged. They were a true model for community engagement on this issue… I’ve noticed a lot of apathy and indifference and pessimism (on Grand Street) that could ultimately doom this process.

But Leitner is an optimist:

This neighborhood has changed a lot. There are a lot of new faces, a lot of new voices. This is our time to make an effort. Every time I see an old picture depicting what once was — I think there’s no reason it can’t be a neighborhood once again.

If you would like to join SHARE you can send an email to sharespura@gmail.com.

Tonight’s Community Board 3 meeting takes place at 630pm, at P.S. 124, 40 Division Street.

See the links below for other interviews in this series:

Community Board 3 Chair Dominic Pisciotta

GOLES Executive Director Damaris Reyes

University Settlement Executive Director Michael Zisser

Grand Street activist Heshy Jacob

Seward Park Extension activist David Nieves

Seward Park Co-op board member Michael Tumminia

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