The emotions ran the gamut last night inside the auditorium of P.S. 20 on Essex Street. Elation, anger, relief, regret and pride were all palpable as Community Board 3 held an historic vote on the future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. At the end of the evening, CB3 members accomplished what seemed impossible to many not so long ago: unanimous approval of a set of planning guidelines (you can read the full document here) for a 7-acre development site the neighborhood has been fighting over for 43 years.
The decision, backed by all of the neighborhood’s elected officials, dramatically increases the odds that CB3’s vision of a mixed use (residential and commercial) project, including 50% affordable and 50% market rate housing, will one day become a reality.
Madelyn Wils, executive vice president of the NYC Economic Development Corp. (the lead city agency on SPURA) sat quietly in the audience during the momentous occasion. After the vote, she praised the community-driven plan and pledged to continue an “open and transparent process” and to “work with the guidelines to come up with a project you can all be proud of.”
Judy Rapfogel, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s chief of staff, was also on hand to reinforce her boss’s endorsement of the plan, which he announced in a written statement after CB3’s SPURA task force voted in favor of the guidelines Monday night. “This is an historic night,” she said. “Shelly wanted me to come down to express our gratitude” to the community board for its perseverance.
After years of perceived ambivalence and/or opposition to redevelopment, many community activists feared Silver (who lives a few hundred feet from SPURA) would block new affordable housing on the parcels. But Rapfogel left no doubt that the Speaker is on board. “You have reinforced our belief in what the people of the Lower East Side can accomplish. We’re looking forward to being there for the ribbon cutting. It’s a great day for the community,” she added.
David McWater, who chaired the SPURA committee for the past three years, called it a “monumental night for the Lower East Side that frankly I thought I’d never see.” Seven years ago, in this same school auditorium, a community gathering to discuss a city-backed proposal for the Seward park site spun out of control, leading to racially-tinged shouting matches that haunt the neighborhood to this day. Last night, it was a very different scene. Civility and pragmatism ruled the day.
This is not to say everyone is pleased with the guidelines, which represent a compromise many find distasteful and, in some cases, unconscionable. GOLES, the neighborhood preservation organization, has been part of the planning process from the beginning. But at Monday night’s committee meeting, the group’s executive director, Damaris Reyes, voted against the plan, insisting that there wasn’t enough affordable housing. They were joined in their opposition by another organization, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, which has been raging against Community Board 3 since the rezoning of the neighborhood in 2008.
Joel Feingold, a GOLES organizer, said “we have turned our backs on working people… we have not even begun to fight.” He then questioned why no former tenants of the urban renewal site (razed in 1967) are part of the SPURA committee. Noting that six shareholders of the market-rate Grand Street cooperatives are on the panel, he asked why no low/moderate income tenants from the (subsidized) Grand Street Guild or the Seward Park Extension (a public housing development) are represented.
Community activist Adrienne Chevrestt said, “the community board should be ashamed for caving into Michael Bloomberg, to the Economic Development Corp. and, yes, to Sheldon Silver… I am infuriated, I am incensed, I feel betrayed by these guidelines.”
During this week’s meetings, GOLES has acquired a new ally in the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES, an organization with which it has not always shared warm relations (GOLES supported the 2008 rezoning campaign — the Coalition opposed it). Until Monday, no coalition members had taken part in CB3’s SPURA planning process or even attended meetings.
One of the group’s leaders, Michael Lelan, called the community board’s adoption of the guidelines shameful. “The land use committee sold this community out,” he said. Arguing the proposal would force low income residents out of the LES, he added, “we demand a real community review.” Another coalition member, Wendy Chung, said, “CB3 does not want to represent low income people… it’s disgusting to me that public land is being sold away from the people who built this community.”
For most affordable housing advocates on the committee, last night’s vote was gut wrenching. Mary Spink said she’d been fighting to protect low income tenants her whole life and, in her heart, wanted to see 100% affordable housing on SPURA. But in an emotional speech to her fellow community board members, Spink said, “it was difficult for me to look at all sides. The (financial and political) realities are tough. I’m tired of seeing that vacant land, which if we don’t act, will eventually not go to any of us. It’s the best we could do with a bad situation.”
Lisa Kaplan, Councilmember Rosie Mendez’ chief of staff (speaking only for herself), told the board she’d been fighting for affordable housing on SPURA for 40 years. “I care deeply about this issue,” she said. ” So it’s not easy for me to come here and support these guidelines. I’m sick of looking at those parking lots… the time is about 35 years too late, but let’s get it done… a very fair compromise was reached.”
For years, Grand Street residents have strongly opposed any affordable housing on SPURA. But last year, Seward Park board member Michael Tumminia said he was willing to accept some affordable apartments if it would help break the decades-long impasse. Then, another Grand Street resident, Brett Leitner, formed a group called SHARE dedicated to seeking a “moderate solution” to the SPURA conundrum. These developments helped advance a perception, which may have resonated with Speaker Silver, that the co-ops (his political base) were no longer monolithic, at least not on this particular issue. Last night, Leitner said, “compromise might be seen by some as a dirty word. But this plan will improve the quality of life of everyone in the neighborhood.”
Responding to the criticism that CB3 did not reach out to the community enough, Board Chair Pisciotta argued there had been an unprecedented effort to engage people from all walks of life. There were countless meetings in which residents were given opportunities to speak, information sessions and, for the first time, online feedback opportunities, he said. “No one was shut out of this process,” he asserted.
Pisciotta, however, agreed to add two new members to the SPURA committee, both former site tenants displaced by the urban renewal project.
Madelyn Wils of the EDC told CB3, “this project will reconnect your community. ” She indicated city officials would begin a series of internal conversations about the next steps in the process. Now that the community board has acted, they can make a formal decision about committing more resources for a costly environmental review of the Seward Park site (the answer will almost certainly be “yes.”) In February, CB3’s planning committee will go back to work, laying out detailed plans for each of SPURA’s 10 development sites. “All of this will start to come together,” Wils said.