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The City’s SPURA Plan and the Community’s Response

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Rendering: NYC Economic Development Corp.

Last week, following Community Board 3’s public hearing, we outlined the city’s plan for the Seward Park Development Project.  Now here’s a more detailed account from the presentation, which mapped out their vision for the 7-acre parcel, Manhattan’s most valuable publicly owned development site south of 96th Street.

There’s no doubt planning for the Seward Park project has reached a critical juncture.  Last week’s hearing marked the beginning of ULURP – the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a requirement anytime city-owned property changes hands.

CB3, which developed planning guidelines and urban design principles last year, will vote on the ULURP application at the end of May.  Community board leaders are pushing for a robust role in the selection of developers (expected to take place next year).  But this process – happening now – is the one in which they have the most leverage to impact what will be built.

Throughout the three-year planning process, city officials have said repeatedly they would take their cues from the community.  Last week, they argued that the ULURP application reflects CB3’s guidelines even if the city did not embrace everything the community board wanted.

The presentation was led by David Quart, senior vice president with the NYC Economic Development Corp., which is the lead agency on the Seward Park project.  Using overhead slides, he explained that:

  • The Seward Park development will encompass 1.65 million square feet on nine parcels (a 10th parcel, the Essex Street municipal garage, was taken off the table).
  • It will be a mixed-use project (40% commercial and 60% residential).  There could be up to 100,000 square feet for community uses (medical centers, cultural facilities, etc.)  Most buildings will include both residential and commercial units but an all-commercial building might be allowed on site 2 or site 3.  Among the commercial uses mentioned in the presentation: a movie theater, a hotel, a grocery store.
  • There will be 900 residential units; 50% will be affordable, 50% market rate. Of the affordable apartments, 20% will be classified low-income, 10% will be moderate income, 10% will be middle-income, 10% will consist of senior housing. The senior housing is likely to be separate from other housing types.
  • The plan allows for a new, expanded Essex Street Market on site 2 (located on the southeast corner of Essex and Delancey streets).  The application also allows for the possibility that the market would stay where it is (on site 9).
  • In opposition to CB3’s guidelines limiting store size to 30,000 square feet, the plan allows big box superstores. Specifically, the presentation stated: “ULURP allows for larger retail uses such as department stores and restaurants, as well as smaller specialized uses such as jewelry-making and custom printing.”
  • The application includes urban design requirements for windows on the ground level, “consistent street walls” and widened sidewalks. Loading zones and curb cuts will be located on side streets, freeing up Delancey, Essex and Broome to be “active retail corridors.”  Quart added, “It allows for Broome Street, which is the most intimate street in the middle of the development, to become a real neighborhood amenity more along the scale of the Lower East Side streets that everyone knows and loves. We see Broome Street as an opportunity to create an active corridor and we would encourage a retail corridor.”


Illustrative drawing only; open space on Broome street. Image: EDC rendering.
  •  There will be a 10,000 square foot park on site 5.  It has not yet been designed; Quart said the community would have a role in creating a vision for the open space.
  • There will be underground parking on four sites; a maximum of 500 spaces will be provided. Currently there are around 400 spaces for public parking on the Seward Park parcels, not including city vehicles (those vehicles would be moved elsewhere).

  • The project will seek to stitch together radically different architectural styles (the low-level tenement scale to the north – high “towers in the park” buildings to the south).  Some tall buildings (up to about 24 stories) will be allowed on sites 2 and 4.  The buildings on sites 1,3, 5 and 6, on the other hand, wouldn’t go above about 14 stories.
  • Developers taking part in the project will be required to participate in the Hire NYC Program. According to Quart, the program mandates a “partnership with community-based organizations, elected officials, community leaders to come up with a recruitment and outreach plan in order to connect the local community with permanent jobs that will be created.”

While no wide-scale rezoning is anticipated, there are several land-use “actions” detailed in the ULURP.  First off,  “Large Scale General Use” permits would be created on the parcels below Delancey street.   This would free up city planners to shift some square footage from one building to another.  For example, Quart explained, it might make sense to shift about 26,000 square feet from site 5 (on Grand Street) to sites 3 and 4 (on Delancey).

There will be no “upzoning;” the total square footage (or FAR) would stay the same but the special permits would allow some flexibility in determining the height and bulk of each building. Quart said no more than around 100,000 square feet would be shifted (the equivalent of about 12 stories).

The ULURP application  also creates a “commercial overlay,” allowing sites zoned only for residential use to include ground floor (and in some cases second floor) retail.  Additionally, it establishes a “use restriction”  requiring that the Essex Street market be maintained as a public market on site 2. This provision would, of course, not be acted upon if the market ends up staying on site 9.

So how was the city’s plan received by the community?  CB3 Chair Dominic Pisciotta called it a “mixed bag.”  While the ULURP application adheres to the community board’s vision of a mixed-use, mixed-income development and includes open space and provisions for community facilities, Pisciotta noted that the city rejected several aspects of CB3’s proposal.  See below for a point-by-point discussion of each of those issues.

Allowances for “Big Box Stores”

Here’s how Quart explained why the city feels it can’t support CB3’s call to limit the size of retail businesses to 30,000 square feet:

…in the interest of creating an exciting and vibrant overall mixed-use, mixed income project we really want to allow for a diversity of store sizes. There are a lot of sites. There’s a lot of retail and in neighborhoods all over the city larger retail stores do a lot to support the businesses of smaller, adjacent, nearby retail stores. So we think that allowing for those larger and smaller, and encouraging them in different parts of the project, it really makes a lot of sense, both from a neighborhood standpoint as well as an economic standpoint.

Harriett Cohen, a public member of CB3’s land use committee, asked how the city could disregard the community’s wishes on the issue of store size.  Would there be any effort to limit square footage, she asked, or could the biggest of big box stores end up in the Seward Park project?  Quart said there are no plans to cap retail square footage. Damaris Reyes, another committee member, echoed Cohen’s concerns, saying:

The Delancey Street corridor is a fraction of what it used to be. There are big hopes in the community that the development of the SPURA site… can really liven up that whole retail corridor again. To think about having a big box store like a Walmart really is a contradiction to that, because as Walmarts come in to communities they put small businesses out of business. While they may have good price points and a diversity of goods and services, the impact that it would have on the other small businesses… would be devastating… a mega superstore like Walmart could really change the game here.

Quart acknowledged the concerns but held firm:

We take your guidelines very seriously… Can we meet every guideline? No, and I think we have been straightforward that we can’t meet every guideline. But we have done the very best that we can to meet as many of the guidelines as we possibly can. With respect to retail, given the mixed-use character that we’re all trying to create here with the project, and the amount of commercial that is there – and based what we know about markets and the way properties are developed – is that having that much retail and having all of it be smaller stores is not particularly sustainable and often not the best way to create a successful project. We do want to encourage the smaller retail. Don’t get me wrong… But from our perspective, we want to see some smaller retail and some larger retail. Often that larger retail is what you need to support the smaller retail.

 Essex Street Market

One vision of a new Essex Street Market. Architectural rendering prepared by Beyer Binder Belle.

In two public hearings last year, residents, merchants and historic preservationists spoke out against the idea of tearing down the 1940 building housing the thriving Essex Street Market and reconstructing it across the street.  At the time city officials argued  that the move would allow them to significantly expand the market’s offerings and would ensure the long-term viability of the beloved public institution.  In the end, they agreed that the ongoing environmental review of the SPURA project would study keeping the market in its current location.  But back then, and again last week, there was little doubt which way the city is leaning.   In his presentation, Quart explained:

The existing market, which I know is a very important amenity to everyone in the community – it’s a very important amenity to us at the city – is thriving, it is open for business – it will remain open for business… If this piece of the project is realized it will be a few years. But in the meantime… we want to see the market thrive and we want to see it thrive well into the future which is one of the reasons we think putting it as an expanded new facility on site 2 makes a lot of sense.  Site 2 is right at that key intersection of Essex and Delancey and it can really form a core focus… for the entire development… by locating in that spot. We think that’s a very exciting thing. It could support not only the current vendors, new vendors but also all the other commercial uses that we’ll see throughout the development.

Quart also noted that a new market, as part of a larger building on site 9, would be paid for by a private developer. But the city would retain ownership of the market, assuring that it would be operated for the benefit of the public.

During the question and answer period, committee members asked about the possibility that the present market could be retained and a second facility created on site 2. Previously, city officials have explained that this scenario would mean losing residential units (something affordable housing advocates oppose).

One housing activist last week asked whether “floor area” could be shifted from site 2 to the south side of Delancey.  The activist, Joel Feingold, argued that such a move would allow the city to save the current market, while not sacrificing any housing. The city officials responded that, while theoretically possible, this kind of land use maneuver is not feasible for a variety of reasons.

Essex Street Market.

Alyssa Konon, EDC executive vice president, said the establishment of two markets would likely upset a delicate balance in a project that is not expected to be a huge money-maker for the city:

To have a market use on both (sites) 9 and 2 is something that means less market rate retail on the ground floor, which just has financial implications. It’s not precluded from happening but it is a trade-off and we’re not in a position to be able to make that judgment about whether we can commit to that at this time… The program that we have right now is one that does not yield much income. There’s not a lot of give on this project, so at this point we think it’s irresponsible of us to commit to having a market on both sites.

Konon and Quart both indicated that their perspective could change next year once a “request for proposals” is released and the city has a clear picture of what various developers are willing to build and what the market will bear.

Cynthia Lamb, the leader of a group advocating for the current Essex Street market building, asked the city if it could show the community what a new mixed-use building on site 9 might look like. Quart said the EDC would ask its designers to come up with some mock-ups.

Aside from the concerns about the historic market building, CB3 members questioned why the city has not committed to paying moving expenses for the current market vendors.   Quart’s response:

There are costs associated with relocation. We need to understand that better. That’s something that will be an ongoing conversation with the vendors so that we can understand what the burdens are, what the conerns are, what the costs are… What you’re saying is a very valid point and something we have heard from the vendors and I think we need to understand… what that looks like and then figure out a way to address it. But I don’t know how that would happen at this point.

At least two CB3 members, including David McWater, land use committee chair, said he recalled that the city had previously agreed to pick up moving expenses. McWater said the city and the community board have an obligation to the vendors, many of whom struggle to make even a modest profit:

I have supported moving the Essex Street Market but that was really predicated on those people having their moving costs paid. I feel like it’’s such a small amount of money… For what’s pocket change on this development we could move all of those people and I really think morally and ethically that’s an important thing to do.

Seward Park redevelopment area.

Permanently Affordable Apartments

The CB3 guidelines called for the subsidized housing in the project (about 450 units) to be permanently affordable.   Last week, city officials initially said the apartments would remain in the affordable housing program for 30 years.  Gabriella Amabile of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said her agency is willing to up the commitment to 60 years, but that permanent affordability is not an option:

Typically with tax exempt bonds, which we expect to be used here, it requires a 30 year term of the housing affordability, so as long as those bonds are in place – that’s our typical term. Considering that this is a unique circumstance… we’re prepared to commit to a 60 year term of affordability for the units at this site…

At the very beginning of the meeting, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer addressed the issue directly, signaling that at least some elected officials as well as community activists will fight vigorously for permanent affordability:

I want to mention that, whatever the final number (of affordable units) is,  it is very important that we as a community advocate for permanent affordable housing and I’m going to call on the City Council and the City Planning Commission and HPD to make sure that we have permanent affordable housing because I think that is critical…

Later in the evening, housing activists picked up where Stringer left off. Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), asserted, “Sixty years is a good first offer… (but) If one of us ends up in those buildings we want to know that when we’re older we’re not going to be displaced.”

Amabile acknowledged that the city has offered permanent affordability in other projects, but said HPD is trying to establish a consistent policy across the city. Nonetheless, she promised to convey the community’s concerns to top HPD officials, adding:

I take your comments very seriously. We totally agree that we don’t want people to be displaced. One of the things HPD does on all of our units is that they are entered into rent stabilization so that’s an additional level of protection.

A New School

CB3’s guidelines called for a new elementary school in the Seward Park project. The city dropped the proposal from the ULURP application, saying the Department of Education does not see the need for another school on the Lower East Side.  Harvey Epstein, a community board member, said the decision is disappointing and misguided:

So I have two kids. In my son’s school there are 28 kids in kindergarten. My daughter has like 32 kids in her 8th grade class. We have overcrowded schools in District 1 and District 2. It’s really important to keep the option open to put a school in here. We’re going to put in a thousand new apartments. I don’t know how many kids are going to come along with those new apartments. 500 kids? 300 kids? It’s really imperative that we have a school. I know the Department of Education says it has no money to build a school even though in District 2 our Speaker (Sheldon Silver) got two schools in the last year. We can’t just say, ‘oh they don’t want to do it.’ It’s really really important for this community to have schools.

Quart responded:

Your comments are very clear. I understand. I’ve heard it before. The DOE has not identified, based on the way they assess needs, a need in this area at this time, nor do they have capital funding. Our (Environmental Impact Statement) is not going to show a school impact from the 900 units of housing here, so as a result of that, we’re not setting aside a school.

Quart added that a school could potentially occupy some of the “community space” set aside in the project.  But in response to a question from a resident who wanted to know whether a developer could help pay for an ‘off-site” school (somewhere else in the neighborhood), Quart said:

In spite of some of the comments tonight there is a lot we are providing as part of this project and financially speaking, in terms of providing these levels of affordability and other amenities, open space, there’s really no way for this project to bear the burden of the cost of a school… a school cost $50-60 million… There is no way that a project like this, that any of the developers could possibly make a contribution to provide a school on another site. Financially it’s not even close. It’s just not possible for it to happen.

A Living Wage, Hiring Locally

The city has decided that the Seward Park project will use Hire NYC, a program designed to promote local hiring.  But, in keeping with well-publicized Bloomberg Administration policies, the city has rejected CB3’s call to pay workers hired by Seward Park businesses a “living wage.” And there is no firm commitment to local hiring.

Quart, referring to pending City Council legislation, said:

Living wage is a citywide issue that’s being dealt with right now. It’s not an issue we can deal with on a project by project basis. If there’s anything passed by the City Council regrading the living wage our project will comply with it.

So what’s next? The ULURP application will be posted online by the end of this month for everyone to read. Then on April 18th, Community Board 3 will hold a public hearing, giving residents an opportunity to speak out about the plan. CB3 will vote on the land use application at the end of May, at which time the City Planning Commission, the Borough President and the City Council will all weigh in.

The city hopes to issue RFP’s for the Seward Park project in early 2013.

Click here for a look at the slide show EDC used during last week’s presentation.

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  1. Love the plans for the park on Broome St. but are their any traffic plans for this street? Right now it’s a speed alley for cars trying to get to the bridge that mostly ignore the traffic signals and pedestrians trying to cross.

  2. I’m awed by the way you have captured the major issues in this article. The guidelines called for permanent affordable housing, maximum 30,000 square feet for a store (mid-box), either keeping the Essex Street Market as is (preference) or keeping it open until a new market is constructed and then properly compensating the vendors for the cost of the move.

  3. Great overview that describes the issues well even for outsiders like myself (UWS).

    I echo your community’s concern for a new school, as we have 3 kids in the UWS public schools.  The DOE often uses its own “math,” which contradicts parents’ counting during a school-by-school assessment, to determine class size/need/projections.

    It’s not surprising that even in the face of LES parents’ calcuations, the DOE would not see a need.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  4. Traffic overview has some missing items in it, mistakes I think.  They left out traffic building to bridge from Clinton to broome only had Norfolk.  Also say there will be 260 needed new parking spaces for the entire Spura project, which seems a bit low to me considering 900 units and workers for stores as well. Parking is going to get tougher for people down here for sure. Mostly it would be nice to have street cafe’s or places on Broome but not sure how all the cars will make that enjoyable. Good report though.

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