The following story first appeared in the May 2012 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine:
It’s a beautiful spring morning on the Lower East Side in the year 2022. You have awakened in your sun-splashed rental apartment on the 24th floor of Seward Park Plaza East, a recently completed building on the southwest corner of Delancey and Clinton streets. As is your Saturday habit, you throw on some clothes and head on over to the gleaming new Essex Street Market, passing by shoppers heading into the Home Depot that consumes the second floor of your building.
Inside the bustling market, you glance at a small exhibit acknowledging its pushcart origins in four recently demolished WPA-era buildings further up Essex Street. Coffee and egg sandwich in hand, you emerge on Broome Street at a small park. Sitting on a bench, you watch kids swinging and coiffed doormen greeting guests at the boutique hotel that’s just opened near the Williamsburg Bridge. Finishing breakfast, you wander up the block to check out what’s playing at the Seward Park Cinema.
This scenario, a scant 10 years from now, may seem far-fetched. After all, people on the Lower East Side have been anticipating the redevelopment of the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) for more than 40 years. A little bit of skepticism is understandable. But here’s the reality: On Tuesday, May 22, Community Board 3 will vote yes or no on the city’s plan for one of the most valuable development sites in Manhattan. If, as expected, board members approve the land use application, this neighborhood-transforming project will adopt an air of inevitability. While community leaders hope the city will continue to consult them, CB3’s official role in the process will be over. Two to three years from now, we may very well see the first shovels in the ground.
Dominic Pisciotta Berg, chairman of CB3, said recently the project would create “vibrant street life to land that has been blighted” for many years and establish a new “micro-neighborhood that will fit into the great history of the Lower East Side.”
SPURA, now rebranded the “Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project,” has been the subject of fierce community battles since 1967, the year bulldozers swept away thousands of homes and businesses in the name of urban renewal. In the decades that followed, many proposals were floated, all of them derailed by neighborhood infighting, primarily over affordable housing. In 2008, the community board decided enough was enough and, in painstaking negotiations, finally drafted a compromise its members could accept.
Sixteen months ago, in a dramatic vote, CB3 members approved a set of planning guidelines. David McWater, who chairs the land use committee, called the decision “a monumental night for the Lower East Side that frankly I thought I’d never see.” In the months that followed, board members hashed out details while city officials decided how much of the community’s plan they were willing to include.
The answer finally came in March, when New York City agencies filed their master plan for the six-acre site. The plan is subject to a regimented process known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which requires consultation with the community board, followed by the Manhattan Borough President and approval by the City Planning Commission and finally the City Council.
Plans are, of course, meant to be changed — and frequently disintegrate altogether. Just ask the feuding investors in Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory project, who are entangled in a bitter legal battle many months after redevelopment plans were approved there. Here, much will remain unknown until early next year, when the city begins soliciting proposals from developers. For now, what we have is a blueprint spelling out what would be allowed. It’s not actually a specific development proposal. But decisions being made now are critical — and will impact everyone who lives and works on the Lower East Side for decades to come.
The project will be conducted in phases during the next 10 years. When it’s completed, there will be nine new buildings stretching from Ludlow Street to Clinton Street and from Grand Street to Stanton Street. Two towers — one at Delancey and Essex, the other at Delancey and Clinton — could rise as high as 24 stories. The other buildings would be anywhere from eight to 14 stories.
The plan calls for 900 rental apartments: half of them market-rate units; half of them affordable to middle-income, low-income and elderly residents. Unregulated apartments could rent for up to $6,000 per month. Subsidized units would be available at lower rates to families earning no more than $130,000 per year, including some set aside for families earning no more than $40,000 annually. The proposal allows for home ownership possibilities, although officials have cautioned it may not be financially viable.
In the city’s plan, there would be up to 630,000 square feet for commercial uses. That’s about nine times the size of the space occupied by the Whole Foods Market on the Bowery. A mixture of small shops and big box stores is planned. The Essex Street Market would be moved to the south side of Delancey Street in an all-commercial building. There would be space for up to 65 vendors, rather than the current 23. There are also allowances for a 100,000-square-foot hotel somewhere on the site.
Room has been designated for a small park on Broome Street, between Suffolk and Clinton streets, roughly where the old fire station is located. Throughout the project, there would be about 100,000 square feet for community facilities, which could include amenities such as a health clinic or a cultural center. That movie theater we imagined? It’s not specifically part of the plan, but it’s something a lot of people clearly want and could be accommodated if it’s financially viable. The city plans to create 500 underground parking spaces, more than enough to replace the surface parking lots eliminated for construction.
City officials in various agencies, led by the Economic Development Corp., argue they have stayed true to CB3’s priorities. At the same time, however, they rejected several pillars of the community board’s guidelines, including a 30,000-square-foot limit on retail shops and a provision making affordable apartments permanently affordable.
For many people, an overriding concern is protecting the Lower East Side’s distinctive character as a multicultural, mixed-income neighborhood. In limiting retail square footage, the community board hoped to bar national chains such as Wal-mart which would, in their view, devastate small “mom-and-pop” stores. The city shared the community’s commitment to locally owned shops, said EDC Senior VP David Quart, but maintained that a key to success at Seward Park is balancing both big and small retail businesses.
“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,” he said. In response to CB3’s concerns, however, the city agreed to a minimum of two ground-level stores in each building, effectively pushing larger outlets to second- and third-floor spaces.
More difficult negotiations lay ahead concerning the fate of Essex Street Market vendors. So far, the city has not committed to paying their relocation expenses, which McWater has said “morally and ethically” they have an obligation to do. Although the community board’s guidelines encourage the preservation of the historic Essex Street Market buildings, city planners seem determined to replace them. An environmental review now under way leaves open the possibility that the 1939 buildings could be saved, but EDC officials have asserted that keeping the old structures is probably “financially unfeasible.”
It was a standing-room-only crowd at a town hall meeting last month, one of the last opportunities for residents to influence the plan before the big vote. Speaker after speaker emphasized that housing costs are skyrocketing and that gentrification is threatening everything the LES has always represented. In advocating for permanent affordability, community activist Joyce Ravitz pleaded: “Keep our community economically and culturally diverse.”
Another activist, Michael Lalan, demanded 100 percent affordable housing, calling the proposal “greed at its worst” and a capitulation to real estate developers.
While community board leaders praised the city for being a “good partner,” they said it was now the larger community’s job to help advocate to “fill the gaps” that exist in the plan. Board Chair Pisciotta Berg called on the city to appoint a CB3 representative to the group that will eventually select developers and approve retail tenants. Board members are also urging local elected officials to help them press for permanent affordability, local hiring and a new public school.
It is apparent, however, that much has changed on the Lower East Side. Eighty-eight-year-old Fran Goldin, a legend in the affordable housing community, declared the plan, “not perfect but better than nothing.” Signaling that the time for fighting is nearly over, she said, “let’s see this thing built for ourselves and our children.”
The year 2022 may not seem like it’s right around the corner. But more than any time in the past four decades, it’s becoming easier to imagine a future on the Seward Park site beyond parking lots and abandoned buildings.