Community Board 3 Ends 45 Years of Rancor, Approves Seward Park Plan

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

It was big news Tuesday night when Community Board 3 broke a half-century long stalemate, voting unanimously to approve the city’s Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Plan.  We already reported the basic story — now here’s a more detailed account from the historic meeting.

The city is now preparing for the next phase in the land use review process, in which Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (a mayoral candidate) will have an opportunity to make his mark on the plan.  But there was obviously a huge sense of relief late Tuesday, after several days of tense negotiations with CB3 Chair Dominic Berg and City Council member Margaret Chin.   The sticking point, affordable housing “in perpetuity” for half of the project’s 900 rental apartments, threatened to undermine three-and-a-half years of painstaking negotiations.

After nine members of CB3’s land use committee voted last week to reject the proposal over the key issue, community activists geared up for a fight.  Arriving at this week’s full board meeting, protest signs in hand, most of them had no idea the city had already backed down.

As the meeting got underway, speaker after speaker demanded permanent affordability.   One organization, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side, went a good deal further, insisting on 100% affordable housing on the Seward Park parcels.  In recent days, the group went after Council member Chin directly, accusing the lifelong affordable housing activist of betraying the community.

Council members Margaret Chin, Rosie Mendez.

Midway through the public session, Chin herself took the microphone, addressing her critics and making an announcement that caught many off guard:

I, myself, grew up in Chinatown and the Lower East Side for 48 years. I know my community and I love this community. I’m proud I have a record, fighting for immigrants, for low income families. I have helped thousands of families get housing, education. So I’m proud of my record, and I’m glad that I am the City Council member that’s bringing about SPURA after 45 years of waiting. It’s finally happening because all of you worked together. Not everyone was happy but you were able to come together because you know it’s important to start building the affordable housing on that site. I think we have heard you loud and clear and same thing with the city… I think it is really important to continue the good work that you have done… The city, because they have heard us loud and clear, they are making the commitment for permanent affordable housing… This morning in our meeting they said they would commit to that.  There are many issues you have fought for in the guidelines and we will continue to fight for those in the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process. I don’t think you have any stronger representative than me and Rosie in the City Council for Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

Chin, standing alongside Council member Rosie Mendez, spoke over hecklers, shouting at her in Chinese from across the room.  “You can count on us advocating and fighting for all of your recommendations at the City Council.”  The resolution CB3 would pass later in the evening spelled out a number of changes they hope will be made in the document during the next several months of negotiations between the Council and city planners. Mendez told the audience assembled in the stuffy gymnasium:

I am here to stand by my sister (Margaret Chin) because we have each others’ back and we’ve got your back. This is very important to us and we’re going to keep working on all those recommendations that you tell us to work for.

Following Chin’s announcement, much of the opposition to the plan melted away.  Tito Delgado, whose family was evicted from the urban renewal area in 1967, was overcome with emotion.  A member of CB3’s Seward Park committee, he was among those voting against the plan last week — but the commitment to permanent affordability made all the difference to him:

I can’t believe this. Forty five years. I’m a former site tenant. I saw the entire community being destroyed. I want to thank everyone on the land use committee. even though we had differences we got together. That’s the Lower East Side I remember… I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing this. There’s a lot of people who need this housing.

Angel Diaz of St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street, speaking for Father Neil Connolly, said he was pleased with the city’s concession.  Connolly is a longtime advocate on behalf of residents demanding affordable housing on the Seward Park site. “We have to compromise. I think we are at the right time, at the right moment to get something done on those empty lots and I think we’re doing the right thing,” Diaz said.

Val Orselli, another member of the committee and the head of Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association (an affordable housing developer), said:

I would ask those advocates of 100% affordable housing how many of them have developed a single unit of affordable housing in our community. If they had, they would know how difficult it is to do it. It is very expensive… We have to learn to be smart and compromise where we can. 50% of something is better than 100% of nada.

But members of the Coalition to protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side disagreed, arguing that the plan is wrong for the working people of the Lower East Side. “Tonight we have an historic opportunity to stand together and say no to a bad city plan that only benefits big developers,” said coalition leader Michael Lalan. Later, shouting from the back of the room, he declared, “this plan is racist.”

CB3 Chairman Dominic Berg.

Following the public session, CB3 Chair Dominic Berg said, “I think this is a very big win” for the Lower East Side,  adding:

While our committee was divided… it was clear that we were united in the principle that we needed to have permanent affordability. We were divided on the strategy but united in the message.  This is a testament to the process that we’re going through… I think it would have been really difficult to have gone forward tonight without permanent affordability… I had faith that our (elected officials) would have been able to get the permanent affordability (for us later on) but we had to show that the community wanted this plan.  I’m very happy right now and very excited to be taking this next step.

After heaping criticism on the city last week for waffling, committee chair David McWater praised officials from the Economic Development Corp. and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for “being honest and upfront” with CB3 and for “finding a way to get us what we needed.”   McWater acknowledged that he was in possession of an email from the city committing to permanent affordability, but asked the officials in attendance Tuesday to say it out loud.  Alyssa Konon, EDC executive vice president, complied, saying, “absolutely we’re committed to permanent affordable housing.”

Berg said he was particularly pleased that the city had agreed to set up a task force charged with guiding the selection of developers. The advisory group will be comprised of community board members, representatives of elected officials and community stakeholders.  It will have a hand in drafting the Seward Park RFP (request for proposals), as well as the criteria for evaluating those proposals.

In its resolution, CB3 called for several changes to the land use document.  In addition to a ban on “big box” stores, the board wants a new public school on the site, a commitment to pay workers employed by businesses in the Seward Park project a “living wage” and a guarantee that local residents would would be hired for both construction and permanent jobs.  While the resolution acknowledges the city’s preference for demolishing and reconstructing the Essex Street Market, it states that vendors’ relocation expenses should be covered and that their rents should be kept near their present levels. It remains to be seen whether the Borough President and the City Council will be able to make headway on any of these points.

When it finally came time to vote, each community board member was called on individually.  A couple of members said they would take “a leap of faith,” in spite of reservations. One member, who works for the Department of City Planning, did not vote. In the end, the decision was unanimous, and a round of applause followed (along with scattered heckling).  Longtime CB3 member Anne Johnson rose to her feet and proclaimed in a booming voice, “this is big news… we need to celebrate!”