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A Hopeful SPURA Rally; Chin Pushes for More Affordable Housing

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The Rude Mechanical Orchestra entertained protesters.

Yesterday we posted a video of City Councilmember Margaret Chin’s remarks during a rally on the Seward Park redevelopment site over the weekend. Now, a bit more from the rally/vigil, as well as more from Chin, who spoke with us briefly before leaving the event on Sunday.

A relatively small group gathered at the corner of Delancey and Suffolk Streets, in the heart of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). It’s the third year in a row that community activists, representing such organizations as Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and the Cooper Square Committee, have assembled to advocate for affordable housing on SPURA. Several participants are members of a Community Board 3 task force trying to formulate a redevelopment proposal, 43 years after these five parcels were bulldozed in the name of urban renewal.

The event began with a spirited performance from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, “a radical marching band… that supports people and communities working for social justice.”  Under a banner that read, “8000 people lost their homes in November 1967,” activists attached balloons to a chain link fence representing 110 buildings demolished on the site.

LES activist Chino Garcia.

But overall, the tone of this year’s protest was more hopeful than defiant. Organizer Harriet Cohen said, “we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” and she added, “reconciliation is the best option.”  A former SPURA tenant, Tito Delgado, asserted the city must finally deliver on a promise made four decades ago to relocate residents thrown out of their homes, and he vowed to “stay here until justice is done.” But Delgado then said, “there’s enough land here for everyone — low, middle income and even that ugly word, luxury.”  Steve Herrick of the Cooper Square Committee said the two sides (supporters and opponents of affordable housing on SPURA) “are not that far apart.”


LES activist Fran Goldin.

Last year, this event became controversial within CB3’s land use and housing committee, which has been working towards a community-wide consensus for the past three years.  Following the vigil, the panel’s chairman, David McWater, threatened to call off the talks, saying some members appeared more interested in inciting their supporters than in working together towards compromise.

One year later, the atmosphere surrounding the discussions has changed. For one thing, the city has now detailed its conditions for a workable SPURA proposal. At last month’s task force meeting, urban planner John Shapiro spelled out the economic realities guiding the city’s thinking on redevelopment, more specifically than ever before.

Based on feedback from committee members and consultations with city agencies, Shapiro suggested about half of the project might be devoted to commercial uses. Among those uses: medium box stores (Trader Joe’s is often cited as an example), boutique-style shops, an expanded public market (building on the Essex Street Market model), a significant amount of community space and perhaps a school (although the DOE doesn’t see a need).

The rest of the site would consist of housing — around 1000 units.  Given the financial constraints imposed by the city, Shapiro said around 60% of the apartments on SPURA would need to be market rate (think $6000/month for a family of four). The remainder could be devoted to low-income, middle-income and senior housing.

The other factor that has changed the tenor of SPURA discussions is the emergence of SHARE, a new group on Grand Street advocating a moderate approach.  The organization’s leader, Brett Leitner, attended the rally on Sunday, and was seen talking with most of the leading affordable housing advocates in attendance.

if nothing else, SHARE has prompted Grand Street co-op residents, who have mostly been sitting on the sidelines in the past couple of years, to engage on redevelopment issues. In response to a recent column in the Grand Street News, a lively discussion has been raging on a local message board. Some commenters have portrayed Leitner as a neophyte who has bought into a naive,  utopian vision of the proposed development. Others have defended SHARE’s activism, saying compromise is the only way anything will ever be built on SPURA.

Yori Yanover, editor of the Grand Street News, spoke out at last month’s task force meeting:

As a resident of 30 years in this neighborhood, I don’t want my city to give up those lots. If the city feels they cannot afford to create a park or to create some other amenity that is really important to us, who are really way away from the center of things, I’d like to sit on it for a little while longer. We waited for 40 years. We can wait another five or six years until there is (inaudible) there to make an investment in improving the life of the community but not necessarily adding more thousands of people to the housing (inaudible).

Jacob Goldman, the owner of LOHO Realty, also attended the meeting. Echoing an argument often heard on Grand Street, he said there’s a need for commercial development to create jobs, not more housing:

We need economic diversity. It is not a popular thing. It is always popular to say we need more housing.  We need economic diversity. It’s very convenient to say ‘let’s put more in one concentrated area but where’s the jobs? Give me jobs. Where’s the local bookstore? I don’t see a bookstore. I don’t see a movie theater either.

On Sunday, Councilmember Chin said neighborhood stakeholders must keep talking until they reach an agreement. But at the same time, she’s not ready to go along with the city, in its insistence that no more than half of the apartments on SPURA can be affordable. Chin told me she is actively searching for creative solutions, including government financing, to build more low and middle income units than “the market” on its own would support.   The private sector is not the only player in developing the kind of housing options the community needs, she added. Chin is continuing to meet regularly with city planners and a wide variety of community groups, in an effort to come up with solutions.

CB3’s next SPURA meeting takes place November 16th at 630, University Settlement, 184 Eldridge Street.

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