In a little more than a week, Community Board 3 will be voting on the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Plan, a project that is destined to change the Lower East Side for decades to come. Behind the scenes, there’s a lot going on leading up to the monumental decision. Here’s an update.
As you may know, CB3 (followed by the Borough President, City Planning Commission and City Council) all must weigh in on land use application (a rough master plan) for the nine parcels adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge. The community board’s role is advisory but, in this case, pivotal because the plan originated within CB3. There’s general agreement that the project will include 900 apartments (50% market rate/50% affordable), up to 600,000 square feet of commercial space and community facilities. But the community board is unhappy that the city backed away from several other provisions, including permanent affordable housing, a ban on “big box” stores and financial support for Essex Street Market vendors.
There’s an ongoing debate within the community board about how hard to press for concessions from the city. Some members are suggesting CB3 should vote no on the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) application if changes aren’t made in the document. Others believe a community board rejection of the plan would cause the city to walk away — scuttling four years of painstaking negotiations.
This much is clear: the Seward Park Plan now has the attention of major developers and the city’s political establishment. As a hotly contested mayoral campaign gets underway, it’s become apparent the Lower East Side project is now a “political football.” Two mayoral candidates – Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer – have official roles in the ULURP approval process. Both politicians will be seeking to make their mark on the final plan. Some members of CB3 find it puzzling that the city initially seemed to support permanent affordability but then backed off. Stringer has publicly backed permanent affordability. Quinn has not articulated her position in public.
Lisa Kaplan, a community board member (and former aide to Council member Rosie Mendez) expressed concerns at a recent meeting that the plan offers the city too much “wiggle room,” and the community too little control over what actually gets built. CB3 has now asked the Economic Development Corp. (the lead agency in the Seward Park project) for clarification as to how much housing, retail and community space could be allowed.
More broadly, members are increasingly worried that they’ll have little influence over the selection of developers and the final approval of their building plans. They point to projects elsewhere in the city in which community boards have felt marginalized, even after being “included” in the planning processes. Others feel as though the city kept them in the dark about the final land use application, eroding an atmosphere of trust that had developed during months of negotiation.
David McWater, CB3’s land use chairman, is optimistic the city will allow a community board representative to sit on the panel screening development proposals. But as of last week, there was no commitment from the city on this point. Meanwhile, CB3 Chair Dominic Pisciotta is pressing for a new public school (something the board’s guidelines called for). That effort is centered on debunking the Department of Education’s assessment that there’s no need for another school on the Lower East Side.
Community board members hope City Council members Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez will help shape the final plan. In many past land use proposals, members of the Council have taken their cues from the local representatives. But given the looming mayoral election, not everyone is convinced Chin and Mendez will have sufficient influence with Speaker Quinn.
CB3 meets for the big vote Tuesday, May 22nd at 6:30 p.m. The meeting takes place in Henry Street Settlement’s Gym, 301 Henry Street. Public speakers should sign up before 6:30 p.m. If you would like to read up on the Seward Park Plan, here’s a link to our previous coverage.