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CB3 Committee Makes History, Votes Yes on SPURA

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It was the deal most everyone thought could not get done. Four decades after hundreds of homes and businesses were bulldozed in the name of urban renewal, Community Board 3 took an historic step last night towards finally rebuilding on five blighted parcels known collectively as SPURA. CB3’s land use and housing committee voted 19-1, with one member abstaining, in favor of planning guidelines (you can read the full document here) calling for a mixed-use, mixed income community at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.

Immediately after the vote, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver released a statement backing the proposal for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. “The final guidelines that were approved by the committee tonight strike an appropriate balance between the needs and concerns of all stakeholders and will result in a development that will ensure our neighborhood continues to thrive,” he said.  State Senator Daniel Squadron also put out a statement last night, saying “the community board vote is a huge win for the community.  It is appropriate that after 43 years, a community-driven process has moved SPURA forward.”

There’s still a long road ahead, including a vote by the full board tonight, the creation of a detailed plan for the development sites and the city’s exhaustive land use process. But the importance of the decision and Silver’s backing cannot be under-estimated.  In past SPURA battles, the powerful Assembly speaker stood with his core constituents, residents of the Grand Street cooperatives, who opposed new affordable housing units on the parcels.

But in the past several months, many co-op residents have come forward, saying the time had come for reconciliation on the Lower East Side. Last night, every co-op resident on the panel voted for the proposal, which calls for a more-or-less even split between market rate and affordable housing, as well as substantial commercial development.

Not everyone was pleased with the end result. Damaris Reyes, the executive director of neighborhood preservation organization GOLES, called the focus on market rate housing “completely ludicrous.” Given the “historic opportunity” before the committee and the hemorrhaging of rent regulated apartments in the neighborhood during the past decade, GOLES had called for 70% affordable housing on SPURA. The panel’s facilitator, John Shapiro, resisted efforts by housing advocates to push the affordable number above 50%, arguing such a move would jeopardize the precarious compromise. Reyes said she would consult with her membership before deciding on the organization’s next steps.

After a lengthy public speaking session, Shapiro led the committee through the latest version of the guidelines.  Some members fought to assure that both senior and special needs housing would have places in the plan.  Barden Prisant, an affordable housing advocate, wanted to add language calling on the city to explore the possibility of “upzoning.” Other participants, including CB3 chair Dominic Pisciotta, said members of the community clearly don’t want to revise zoning laws if the purpose is “maximum density” on the SPURA lots.

Pisciotta also said he had heard from residents, “loud and clear,” about the importance of preserving the Essex Street Market. There’s widespread agreement that the character of the market and the small-scale vendors should be retained. During the public session, many people also spoke in favor of the WPA-era market buildings, which Shapiro favors demolishing to make room for more modern and efficient facilities. At the suggestion of committee member Bob Zuckerman (of the LES BID), a line was added saying, “there is a strong preference that the existing Essex Street Market remain on its current site.”

David McWater.

As the hour grew late, Shapiro said he detected quite a bit of anxiousness in the meeting room.  Leading into the vote, he noted that “everyone is equally unhappy,” which he took as a good sign. Pisciotta said all of the stakeholders had “gone well beyond their comfort levels” during almost three years of painstaking negotiations. At 10:01pm, Committee Chair David McWater began reading the resolution in support of the guidelines.  Roll call was then taken, each member registering his or her voice vote.

In the end, no one got everything they wanted.  Many housing advocates on the committee wanted more affordable units.  Some Grand Street residents ended up supporting higher levels of low, middle and moderate income housing than they would have liked. After the meeting, Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, credited Pisciotta and McWater for running a “collaborative and transparent” process. When asked whether opponents of affordable housing on Grand Street would accept the plan, Kaplan noted that there was “a good cross-section from Grand Street on the committee,” a factor that made compromise much more likely.

In the days ahead, GOLES will have to decide whether it stays involved.  Will the organization choose to walk away from a plan it could not support? Or will the group return to the negotiating table during the next phase of the community process, with the goal of reshaping the ultimate plan?

Once the full membership of Community Board 3 votes tonight, the guidelines will be evaluated by city officials. It’s likely they will come back to CB3 with comments, questions and concerns. If all goes well, City Hall will green light an Environmental Impact Statement, a thorough examination of the development sites. At the same time, the committee would begin work on a parcel-by-parcel plan for SPURA.

We’ll have more following tonight’s meeting.

Also, we’re expecting a statement from City Councilmember Margaret Chin later today. In the past, she has called for 80% affordable housing on the Seward Park site.

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