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Monday’s Big SPURA Vote

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Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

Monday night, 22 community activists will file into the Henry Street Settlement’s gym, poised to make a big decision. After two-and-a-half years of deliberations, Community Board 3’s land use committee is finally scheduled to vote on planning guidelines for the 7-acre Seward Park redevelopment site.

The significance of the task at hand is lost on no one. A “yes” vote would represent a major step forward in ending a bitter stalemate that has divided the neighborhood for 43 years.  Even if the panel backs the proposal, the neighborhood’s political leaders give their blessing and city agencies sign off on the guidelines, there are many more hurdles to clear before the first shovel is in the ground on Delancey Street.  But since the community has never agreed on a basic framework for redevelopment, the importance of this initial step cannnot be overlooked.

In the last several days, we’ve been speaking with a variety of panel members about the upcoming vote.  While some members are keeping their intentions private, many others are talking about “compromise” and “reconciliation.” David McWater, who heads the SPURA task force, has said in the past he’d like a unanimous vote.  CB3 Chair Dominic Pisciotta, however, suggested this week a “strong majority” is all that will be needed to demonstrate that the community is united.

The committee is made up of 13 community board members and 9 public members.  On the panel, there are several affordable housing advocates, a number of Grand Street residents who have historically resisted low income housing on the SPURA parcels and a third contingent made up of “moderates,” people who have advocated compromise in order to “get something built.” Pisciotta said there needs to be significant support from all three groups.

One affordable housing organization represented on the committee, GOLES, has called for building 70% affordable housing (the draft guidelines propose a 50-50 split between affordable and market rate units).  Another member, Harvey Epstein (a former CB3 chairman), told us he also wants to see more low-income and middle income apartments in the plan.

But others seem prepared to support the housing plan that’s been proposed.  Last week, Mary Spink of the LES Mutual Housing Association (a non-profit developer), said she was comfortable with the guidelines. Val Orselli, executive director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association (also a non-profit developer), concurred. In a phone interview, he called on the panel to strengthen language in the guidelines insisting on a “living wage” for workers building the SPURA project and for those working there once it’s built.

But Orselli said 50% affordable housing is “what’s currently realsitic.”  Noting GOLES’ call for 70% of the housing to be affordable, he suggested there is a difference between “advocating for rights… and getting housing built” in the real world.  Orselli told me he would seek new language in the guidelines that would “leave the door open” for building more affordable units if government subsidies can be identified. City officials have said on numerous occasions that they’re willing to sell the SPURA parcels below market rate in exchange for things the community wants (like affordable apartments). But no additional subsidies are available in the current economy.

Ricky Leung, a community board member and housing activist, was also talking compromise this week. A member of GOLES and president of the Cherry Street Tenants Association, Leung said he would like to see a somewhat higher percentage of affordable units (55-60%). But he expressed a strong desire to make a deal and acknowledged a need for the panel to “meet in the middle.”

It’s less clear where longtime Grand Street residents stand on the proposal. Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, did not respond to our interview request. Last month he told the New York Times he could support building 20% low income housing on SPURA.   He did not indicate how he felt about setting aside housing units for middle income residents. Another Grand Street resident and CB3 member, Rabbi Y.S. Ginzberg, deferred to Kaplan, saying “we usually agree on what’s best for the community.”

A public member of the committee, Seward Park Co-op resident Karen Blatt, did share (via email) her thoughts on SPURA.  While indicating she preferred 20% affordable/80% market rate, Blatt said the guidelines seem “perfectly reasonable”  (given the political climate revolving around SPURA).  She does, however, want assurances that there won’t be more than 1000 housing units, since the neighborhood already has “overcrowded schools and inadequate transit.”

While the assumption has been that most apartments will be rental units, Blatt thinks there’s a need for some owned apartments on SPURA. She added, “it is my opinion that potential buyers may hesitate to pay market rate prices if they know that 50% of the units were not purchased at market rate prices. Also, it may be difficult for market rate buyers to obtain mortgages if the building is not commercially viable.”

Two other Seward Park residents on the committee, Michael Tumminia and Linda Jones, have expressed strong support for the guidelines. They are both members of SHARE, a new organization advocating a middle-of-the road approach on SPURA.

The wild card, of course, is State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a longtime co-op resident.  The Speaker has indicated he will have no comment about the SPURA deliberations until after “the process has taken its course.”  In the past, many observers believe he has blocked redevelopment of the Seward Park site.

If the committee votes in favor of the guidelines and CB3’s full board does the same at it January 25th meeting, pressure will increase on him to weigh in. City officials will be looking for Silver, City Councilmember Margaret Chin and State Senator Daniel Squadron to back the plan before deciding whether to commit more resources to the planning process.

Approval from the Economic Development Corp., the Department of City Planning and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development would trigger a an exhaustive environmental impact study of the parcels.  At the same time, CB3 would likely get to work on a detailed plan for each development site.

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