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SPURA Panel Discusses Building Height, Open Space

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SPURA in styrofoam; one of many configurations on display Wednesday night.

Four decades after thousands of homes and small businesses were demolished, most people have a hard time visualizing what a new mixed-use project on the six acre Seward Park development site might look like. This week, however, members of Community Board 3’s land use committee got a first glimpse of a future beyond parking lots.

Beyer Binder Belle (BBB), the architectural firm leading CB3 through the urban design phase of the ongoing redevelopment discussions, prepared the 3D model you see pictured, using styrofoam, hot wire cutters and glue. It was not a plan for the site – far from it.  But the model was meant to give committee members a general feel for the choices they’ll soon be making about building heights, bulk and open space.

On Wednesday night, BBB’s Neil Kittredge told the panel his model was constructed, utilizing the community board’s planning guidelines, which were approved two months ago but not yet fully endorsed by city agencies.  The guidelines call for building at least 800 apartments, a significant amount of retail, community spaces, a school and parks on the site. Under current zoning, there’s about 1.5 million square feet available for development.

Kittredge said he believes the community’s goals can be met without substantially changing zoning. “I feel like the density is right for the neighborhood, but the shape (of buildings) is something that needs to be re-formed,” he explained.  Throughout the evening, he and his team moved styrofoam pieces from one lot to another to help illustrate the point.

In New York City, the size of a particular lot dictates maximum square footage.  A building can either be “tall and skinny” or “short and fat.”  Kittredge pointed to SPURA parcel #5, the largest site, as an example.  The 1.3 acre parcel, located on Grand and Clinton streets, would accommodate a 340,000 square foot building.  It could be a narrow 20-30 story tower with room for open space on the rest of the lot — or it could be a shorter building with larger floors, consuming most of the site.

“Building to maximum height is not what I would recommend as an urban planner,” Kittredge said.  Repeating themes he introduced last month, Kittredge suggested varying building height, establishing “street walls,” carving out spaces for small plazas and constructing buildings with “setbacks” would help create a sense of “human scale” and of “light and air.”

Kittredge suggested site #2 (on the south side of Essex & Delancey) is a natural anchor for the project, since it’s located in an especially conspicuous spot. He described it as a “gateway” and a good place for an iconic, architecturally significant building. In the past, city officials have intimated this parcel (Essex Street Market Building D) would be the commercial center of the new development. It’s a likely location for a mid-box (30,000 sq.ft.) retail tenant and also an expanded public food market.

SPURA site #5, at the corner of Grand and Clinton streets.

Kittredge said site #5, since it’s so large, could accommodate a school (which the guidelines call for) and a small park, as well as retail and residential units.  He noted that Clinton Street is a well-traveled pedestrian route in and out of the neighborhood and suggested a second natural “gateway” could be developed along this corridor. Kittredge even floated the idea of building a 20 story hotel on the eastern edge of the SPURA site.

Mid-way through the presentation, a few committee members and residents interjected — complaining that they were being excluded from the decision-making process.  Non-committee members were given the option of speaking at the beginning or end of the meeting.  But the panel’s chairman, David McWater, has adhered to standard community board policy, which allows community participation only during “public sessions.”  After they were prohibited from speaking, several residents walked out, saying the SPURA deliberations were “designed to make sure we can’t have input.” Community Board member Harvey Epstein implored McWater to let the residents speak; McWater said he wasn’t about to change the rules in the middle of a meeting.

Another board member, Barden Prisant, registered a separate complaint.  Addressing Kittredge, he said “you’re here presenting your vision (for SPURA) on behalf of your client, the city.”  Prisant argued CB3 should hire its own architects to represent the community’s interests and said he’d recruited a firm that had offered to donate its time.

David Quart of the NYC Economic Development Corp., responded to Prisant’s concerns. Explaining the city and the community “had to start somewhere,” he indicated the model did not represent a final plan but rather was meant to facilitate an interactive discussion.  CB3 Chairman Dominic Pisciotta agreed, saying “this is the process to plan for our community. This is your opportunity… We are not going to have two separate tracks. This reminds me of other processes (ie: the Chinatown Working Group?) that have gone nowhere.”

During the back and forth, Bob Zuckerman of the LES Business Improvement District, suggested CB3  schedule a town hall meeting. It might help to give members of the community an opportunity to offer feedback “outside the confines of the community board,” he said. Damaris Reyes of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) concurred, saying it could be “fruitful” and argued that people in the community would “appreciate” greater involvement. In a more general sense, Reyes said, a lot of people feel as though the process is moving too quickly. While she praised BBB’s “thoughtful” model-making,  Reyes suggested committee members needed more time to digest the concepts Kittredge had presented.

The committee eventually resumed the urban design discussion, peppering Kittredge with a number of specific questions.  Responding to concerns that building a tall tower on site #5 would not go over very well on Grand Street, Kittredge raised the possibility of shifting air rights to site 4, on Delancey. City officials said they were investigating what would be involved legally. Edith Hsu-Chen of the Department of City Planning said, “you can’t send air rights around willy-nilly… but in principle we believe in the concept that wider streets (such as Delancey) can handle more density.”

Some committee members also expressed a desire for more open space than the model depicted. Kittredge said there might be space for a second (smaller) park on the south side of site #2 and he also spoke in favor of carving out plazas and landscaped sidewalks throughout the project. Earlier in the evening, Kittredge argued there did not appear to be a compelling need for more large parks, since Seward Park, East River Park and Sara D. Roosevelt Park are all within walking distance of SPURA.

The notion of setting aside space for a hotel — in a neighborhood littered with stalled hotel projects — did not go over very well.  Committee member Harriet Cohen, expressing the sentiments of many LES residents,  said “I would not want to see a hotel at the gateway of the Lower East Side. There are a lot of hotels in this neighborhood.” Bob Zuckerman of the BID agreed, asserting the community needs office workers, job creation and economic development rather than another hotel.

CB3 member Harvey Epstein voiced concern about the proposed school, which Kittredge suggested could be a free-standing structure separate from a mixed use (retail and residential) building on site #5.  Epstein pointed out that a private developer (the likely recipient of generous tax breaks) could not be compelled to pay for school construction if the facility was not part of a larger development deal.  The Department of Education does not think there’s a need for a school on SPURA. Edith Hsu-Chen of City Planning said she doubted a private developer would be willing to pick up the tab for a school, while also funding other amenities the community has said it wants (affordable housing, etc).



At the end of the evening, several committee members agreed there is confusion about the road ahead. “What kind of decisions are we being called on to make here?,” CB3 member Joel Kaplan asked. David Quart of the EDC has indicated the current deliberations will inform a sweeping environmental study, which is scheduled to begin next fall.  The urban design details being hashed out now will be incorporated into a “Scope of Work” document (see examples here), for a consultant conducting an Environmental Impact Statement. There will be a public meeting in September to gather community-wide feedback about what the environmental assessment should include.

Next month, Quart said he would walk committee members through a detailed explanation of the process.  Also next month, CB3 will discuss the future of the Essex Street Market. Quart acknowledged the city was well aware many members of the community are strongly opposed to the current market’s demolition. He said officials would be meeting with residents and other market stakeholders in the coming month. The committee also deferred a discussion about “upzoning” of SPURA parcels until next month.

If you have comments or questions about the ongoing SPURA discussions, you can email them to Community Board 3 at: spura@cb3manhattan.org.  If you prefer the old-fashioned way, you can send a letter to: Community Board 3, 59 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003.

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