SPURA “Stakeholders” Face Tough Decisions

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

On Monday night, it’s back to work for members of Community Board 3’s SPURA task force.   They’ve had a lot to think about since last month’s meeting, in which CB3 leaders unveiled draft guidelines for the redevelopment of the 7-acre Seward Park site.  Dominic Pisciotta, CB3 chair, says the upcoming session will be focused on finalizing the guidelines, which will eventually be sent to the mayor’s office for review.  A community board vote will hopefully occur in January, he told me.

The guidelines lay out plans for a mixed use, mixed income community on 10 parcels near the Williamsburg Bridge (read them for yourself here).  For the first time since the three-year planning process began, the proposal spells out how much affordable housing could be built in a financial self sufficient project (between 40-60%).   Now that a benchmark has been established,  committee members face some tough decisions.   It appears a direct conversation (steadfastly avoided up until now) about who should live on the SPURA site is finally at hand.

Task force members have spent the past month consulting with the constituencies they represent, weighing how much/how little affordable housing they’re willing to accept.  Many of them are grappling with how to satisfy their core supporters while, at the same time, doing what’s right for the larger community.

Damaris Reyes, GOLES executive director

Damaris Reyes, executive director of the neighborhood preservation organization GOLES, told me recently the past several weeks have been gut-wrenching.  Ultimately, she’ll have to decide what’s in the best interest of the many low income residents she represents, who have traditionally looked to SPURA as their last, best hope of staying in a gentrifying neighborhood.

There’s no doubt Reyes would be more likely to support guidelines that guaranteed 60% low/middle income housing, rather than the flexible 40-60% range in the draft proposal.  But it’s not at all clear that even a 60/40 (affordable/market rate) mix would be enough to keep GOLES at the table.

On the other end of the spectrum is Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, who has been equally reticent to telegraph his “bottom line.”  Speaking for longtime residents of the Grand Street cooperatives, he has repeatedly argued for commercial development, rather than low income housing on the SPURA parcels.

When I asked him several weeks ago whether we could talk about the draft guidelines he suggested, “why don’t you talk, I’ll listen.”  Kaplan, who has close ties to State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver,  said he was pleased the most recent SPURA conversations had been relatively collegial, in contrast with the ugly confrontations that marked earlier redevelopment talks.  When asked whether UJC leaders had met with Silver about SPURA in recent months, Kaplan did not reply directly.

Sheldon Silver, Margaret Chin advocating for affordable housing in Chinatown earlier this year.

For his part, Silver is saying absolutely nothing publicly. Staffers routinely refer us to a statement he made to the Villager one year ago. “There is nothing new,” he said in an exchange outside the Seward Park Co-ops. “It’s been going on for a long time. At some point, there will be a plan that is acceptable to the community.”

In the past, the loudest voices within the cooperatives have been strongly opposed to building affordable housing on the SPURA parcels.  But a new Grand Street group, SHARE, has been advocating for a more moderate approach and has collected more than 300 petition signatures. They recently launched an online petition as well, calling for compromise and an end to “decades of conflict & political alliances that have paralyzed progress.”

The SHARE organization has met with City Councilmember Margaret Chin and State Senator Daniel Squadron. Silver, a fellow Grand Street resident, declined their request for a meeting. Brett Leitner, SHARE’s lead organizer, said he was “baffled” by the denial.

In the next few weeks, Chin seems poised to play a larger role in the ongoing discussions. A lifelong affordable housing activist, she is among those having to satisfy her political base. In multiple public statements and interviews, she has called for “mostly low and middle income housing” on the SPURA site.  At the moment, Chin and Silver, who have enjoyed warm relations in Chin’s first year in office, are far apart on the issue.  But in recent days it has become apparent they are both searching for ways to narrow their differences and to accommodate both of their core constituencies.

One key question for CB3 is this: at what point will Silver and Chin choose to engage directly with the task force? Pisciotta said there have been no conversations with either elected official about a potential timetable.  Presumably, the city would insist on the endorsement of the neighborhood’s elected representatives before beginning an evaluation of the community board’s redevelopment guidelines. In 2003, the mayor shelved a controversial Seward Park plan, after community groups, Silver and then City Councilman Alan Gerson balked.  This time around, city planners have made it clear the mayor’s office will only get behind the SPURA process  if there’s widespread community support.