CB3 Votes on Seward Park Plan Tomorrow

Rendering: NYC Economic Development Corp.
Rendering: NYC Economic Development Corp.

Tomorrow night Community Board 3 is scheduled to hold one of its most significant votes in several years — deciding whether to approve of the city’s land use application (ULURP) for the Seward Park Mixed Development Plan.  After three years of deliberations on the fate of nine parcels near the Williamsburg Bridge, CB3 leaders hoped for a near-unanimous vote in favor of the plan to build 900 new apartments and up to 650,000 square feet of commercial space on the site.   But last week CB3’s land use committee was divided on the issue (13 ‘yes’-9 ‘no’-1 ‘not voting’), and it’s likely several members of the full board will vote ‘no’ tomorrow.

After the community board acts, the proposal goes on to the Manhattan Borough President, to the City Planning Commission and finally to the City Council. While CB3’s support is not technically required, some are concerned that a rejection from the board (or even a tepid endorsement) would prompt the city to walk away from the project.

In some respects, the ULURP mirrors CB3’s planning guidelines (approved in January of last year).  But there was widespread disappointment among members of the Seward Park committee (which includes both CB3 members and community stakeholders) about several key omissions: Among the sticking points:

  • A 60-year term for the affordable housing to be built, rather than permanent affordability
  • Allowances for “big box” stores, rather than a 30,000 square foot limit on retail businesses
  • The absence of a public school
  • The refusal to guarantee local hiring and a “living wage”
  • The lack of a commitment to pay relocation expenses for Essex Street Market vendors

As last Thursday evening’s meeting began, City Council members Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez vowed to fight for the things the community wants, but strongly encouraged a “yes” vote.  Chin said she understands that permanent affordability is a critical issue for many committee members:

We wanted you to know that the issue is important to (both of us) and we will fight (for it)…  It’s not like after CB3 votes that’s it. We want continuous involvement until we see this development built. We want to make sure that community organizations here, who have built affordable housing in our neighborhood, have the opportunity to be involved in this… Finally I think this is very important. No matter what differences we might have – we might not be there 100% yet together – but it’s important at this time that we urge this committee to really vote yes on this, with your recommendation of things that have to be accomplished in this plan. You have to confirm the hard work that you have put it along with the community, that the commitment is there, that your work is not wasted and a strong yes means that… We will use (your recommendations) as our guidelines, as our road map when we get to the City Council. So I urge that you do that. Vote a strong yes with your strong recommendation, so that this project, after 40 years, is finally going to happen and it’s because of your courage and commitment and it’s not because of your fear… We will make it happen, I promise you.

Mendez, noting that people on the Lower East Side have been waiting more than four decades for the Seward Park parcels to be redeveloped, added:

We are here and we have gotten to this point because we are a community that doesn’t forget. We are committed and we stuck it out for more than 40 years. The consensus that was reached a couple of months back by this body has not been articulated in some of the papers and today when you vote we are asking you to vote yes and to articulate every point that you want us to go and fight for. You have no two stronger advocates than the two right here. we have always been supporters of permanent affordable housing and we will stand there shoulder to shoulder to get you that.

Some board members were skeptical that Chin and Mendez will have sufficient influence to change the plan. CB3’s Harvey Epstein said, “I totally appreciate what you’re saying and I trust both of you to do what’s best for our community but… I kind of feel side-swiped by the city because we said ‘this is what we’ll agree to’ and it only came out in the end (that we weren’t getting what we agreed to).”

Tito Delgado, a public member of the committee and a former Seward Park site tenant, said, “(The city) has lied to this community in the past, actually they’ve lied for 45 years… Why was the permanent affordability taken out?  There are no guarantees that you can make it happen. I know you guys are fighters but you can’t guarantee it unless we have it here now.”

In response, Chin counseled, “This is just the beginning of the ULURP process… You’ve got to make sure that the message that’s sent here is loud and clear that we want this to go forward… If you say ‘no,’ we’re negating all the work that’s been done.” She added, “I have faith we will get permanent affordability because we will continue that struggle… We got to this point so I ask you to have some faith that this will happen.”

The Seward Park sites south of Delancey Street. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa.

As the meeting progressed, there were detailed conversations about the fine points in the land use application. Committee Chair David McWater said the city had agreed to add language guaranteeing that 900 apartments would be built, and that commercial enterprises would not crowd out housing on the parcels.  City officials also addressed skepticism from the committee that the narrow lots where the Essex Street Market buildings now sit can be redeveloped. David Quart of the Economic Development Corp., said designers are confident the sites are suitable for new construction, including housing.

There was also conversation about the role of local, non-profit developers in the project. A provision would require large firms from outside the neighborhood to work with Lower East Side organizations with experience building low-income housing.  The committee reviewed the makeup of a task force, comprised of City Council representatives and community stakeholders, that will help draft criteria for selecting developers.  But the vast majority of the meeting was consumed with the issue of permanent affordability.

spura design 4

Gabriella Amabile from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said her agency had instituted a citywide policy making 60 years the standard term for affordable rental units.  “That said,” she added, “we hear from the committee and obviously from the Council members an incredibly strong request and push for permanent affordable housing and… we are continuing to look at that issue and we want to work with you.”

Following questions from committee members, Amabile conceded that exceptions have been made in the recent past under “certain circumstances.” CB3’s Joel Kaplan asked what those circumstances have been. There was no direct response. In the past month, some observers have speculated that the city’s reversal on the issue has more to do with mayoral politics (Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a mayoral candidate, will have a lot to say about whether the project goes forward) than with policy.

Carlina Rivera, a community member who works for affordable housing organization GOLES, noted that Chin and Mendez did not indicate whether they would vote to reject the ULURP if they failed to win permanent affordability for the community. “They say we have to vote for this right now,” she said, “but it’s a document not everyone agrees with. There’s a lot of language missing and a lot of things people don’t like.”

Berg, CB3’s chair, said he understood the concerns but advised members that there is peril in rejecting the plan:

I hear you, but our work is reflected in this ULURP.  It took a long time to get to this point. For us to vote no is voting against ourselves. It’s voting against the progress that we’ve made… The Council members were very clear that they are going to fight for this… We’re not folding up our tent. This is a process… (by an advisory body).  If we say no, to me, it sends a very wrong message that maybe we don’t want this.

McWater, the committee chair, concurred:

If the message is that the plan doesn’t have grass roots support, I don’t think there’s a lot of reason for the city to continue working on it… We have shepherded this plan as far as we can take it with the amount of political clout that we have, and it’s time to turn it over to the bigger shepherds.

A 2010 rally for affordable housing on the SPURA site.
A 2010 rally for affordable housing on the SPURA site.

More than a year ago the committee reached a consensus, approving a set of planning guidelines for Seward Park. Only one member, GOLES Executive Director Damaris Reyes, voted “no.” Last week, she argued that CB3 has an obligation to follow its convictions:

If we are just (an) advisory (body), then we concede the city doesn’t really have to listen to us and we should do what is right for our community. The guidelines were a compromise already… It was the document that was least offensive to all of us, so we gave up a lot at that point…  We have been asked to have faith a lot and we don’t always get the things we want.  Tito (Delgado – former site tenant) has had faith for 45 years. I think he’s had faith long enough.

Lisa Kaplan, CB3 member and Mendez’s former chief of staff, said she had major reservations about the document. “I really feel like we didn’t get as much as we should have gotten,” she explained. “I don’t understand why the city doesn’t say ‘you’re getting affordable housing in perpetuity’… It’s just nonsense. It should be done. I’m really not convinced we’re going to get much more from what the ULURP says now.”

The strongest words in opposition, however, came from Epstein:

I really feel like the city screwed us. I came to the table (Three years ago) in good faith. I made some really serious compromises in exchange for something we all agreed we needed — unconditional affordable housing… (The city’s last minute change of heart) It feels like a slap in the face to me. It feels like, ‘you know what we don’t really care what you think.’… The city stopped being our partner… The city in my mind is basically screwing this community. I feel angry with the city, I feel upset with the city, I feel like you’re violating what we did here.

Delancey Street.  Photo by Vivienne Gucwa.
Delancey Street. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa.

Given its past disagreements, the panel was remarkably united on the content of the ULURP. Some members suggested the only dispute concerned tactics — how hard to push the city.  But Hewitt, one of the longest serving members of CB3, said his uneasiness with the plan had little to do with strategy:

I would not be responsible to what I’ve committed myself to in this neighborhood for the past 40 years if I say I would vote (yes)… I can say very strongly that I would be letting down the people who I have housed, and their families… HPD is thinking of how to sell this program to the developer, which means they are thinking more about the developers and how this program would be sold than how (to satisfy this community)… We got screwed again.

McWater said he, too, felt burned, but urged committee members to look beyond their anger:

I agree with a lot of what Harvey said. I sat in a million meetings with the city…. I said, ‘tell me if there’s going to be a surprise.’ I found out about this affordability thing almost by accident, just sitting there in a meeting and it gets dropped on me. Unlike Harvey, I don’t believe it is the city’s intent. I think it’s a big tactical snafu on their part. Like Harvey, I’m very angry about it. It was the wrong thing to do and it was the wrong thing to do with people who were not just your partners on this deal but who were partners on the Lower East Side rezoning… I also know we’re talking about housing for probably 1300-1400 low income people. We’re talking about $50 million a year in jobs. In my judgment the best move is to vote yes and I will promise all of you who do, who are on the fence, that if City Council doesn’t have permanent affordability, I will personally be the first person down there to testify against this plan and I will meet with every single member of that committee to tell them I oppose it and I’ll fight it every way I can.

In the end, McWater’s pledge was not enough to sway the dissenting members of the committee.  Hard line members of the panel – staunch affordable housing advocates – voted “no.”  But several members, moderate voices critical to the passage of the guidelines last year, also rejected the ULURP.

Tomorrow night, you can expect a string of public speakers, denouncing the proposal in its current form.  Affordable housing groups involved in the process from the beginning are mobilizing for the big event.  Another organization, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, has vowed to fight the ULURP — and has aimed its protests directly at Council member Chin.  In a press release emailed earlier today, the group said:

Community representatives will demand that Chin retract her statement of support for the City’s pro-developer plan for SPURA at the Community Board meeting this Tuesday, and support the community’s call for: 100% low-income housing; low-cost spaces for community programs and small businesses; and jobs prioritized for the community.

After last week’s meeting CB3 Chair Berg said he is confident the full board will approve the city’s proposal.  Ir remains to be seen how much opposition will materialize within Community Board 3 — and what kind of message the Lower East Side chooses to send the city about a long-awaited plan.

Community Board 3 will meet at Henry Street Settlement, 301 Henry Street. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.