As SPURA Approval Nears, Activists Angle For Spots on New Task Force

The Seward Park site, looking south on Delancey Street. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa/

A week from tomorrow, the full City Council is expected to vote on the sweeping land use application for the Seward Park redevelopment project (SPURA).  The land use committee signed off on the proposal last week, after City Council member Margaret Chin won several concessions from the city regarding a new public school, off-site affordable housing and other issues.  But even before final approval, some activists are turning their attention to the next steps, as the plan for one-thousand apartments and commercial spaces on nine parcels near the Williamsburg Bridge moves forward.

Following City Council and mayoral rubber-stamping, the NYC Economic Development Corp. is expected to move quickly to draft a Request for Proposals (RFP).  They hope to release it sometime in January.  Earlier this year,  Community Board 3 proposed the formation of a new task force to help create the RFP and to evaluate proposals from developers.  The city agreed to work with the new group. The task force will consist of representatives from local elected officials’ offices (Council members Chin and Rosie Mendez, plus Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer), five CB3 members and two members from “local stakeholder groups.”

Monday night, the makeup of the new panel was a subject of conversation at the Chinatown Working Group (CWG), a collection of more than 50 neighborhood organizations focused on developing a long-range plan for the neighborhood.  At least two member groups, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association, made the case that a CWG representative should be appointed to the Seward Park task force.

Wendy Cheung, a Chinese Staff leader,  said, “it’s important that the Chinatown Working Group become involved because we represent so many (organizations) and SPURA is a huge plot of land in the Lower East Side and Chinatown.”  The organizations speaking out at the meeting are key members of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side.  Coalition members said they had collected 6,000 petition signatures in support of 100% affordable housing on the Seward Park parcels. Recently, the group held a news conference with Ben Wong (founder of the Wok and Roll fast food chain), who’s interested in pursuing the idea.  This week Cheung suggested sending a letter to CB3 to formally request a CWG seat on the task force.  Since the Chinatown Working Group lacked a quorum Monday night, there was no vote, but the issue will be vback on the agenda next month.

Wok and Roll’s Ben Wong at colaition headquarters last month.

In January of 2011, Community Board 3 voted to approve a plan for 50% affordable and 50% market rate housing on the Seward Park site.  Affordable housing advocates on CB3’s land use committee hoped for more low income units, but agreed, that after a 43-year-long stalemate, the time for debate had come to an end.   Now the coalition is signaling its desire to reopen the discussion when the task force convenes.

Decisions regarding task force membership will be made by CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li.  Many factors will be considered but a major priority, she told us, will be assembling a group with expertise in land use issues and identifying candidates capable of navigating the highly technical RFP process.

The coalition and Community Board 3 have a contentious history.  The organization was strongly opposed to the 2008 rezoning of the 111 blocks of the Lower East Side, a project initiated by CB3.  Coalition members were not actively involved in the community board’s Seward Park deliberations until late in the process.

The task force is an advisory body with no actual authority, but CB3 leaders are hopeful the panel will give the community some degree of influence in deciding what ultimately gets built on those nine parcels adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge.  The role of the task force was spelled out in a resolution approved by CB3 last spring:

The City will commit to continuing its partnership with the community on the Seward park Mixed Use Development Project, including the community’s participation within the City’s RFP process as follows… Prior to releasing the RFP, the City will meet with the Task Force designated by the Community Board to request their priority goals. This will include, but not be limited to, a discussion about preferences for ground-floor and retail uses. The Task Force will review final RFP goals and selection criteria prior to the City’s release of the RFP.  One of the selection criteria in the RFP will be that the Task Force preferences will be considered in final selection.  Upon receipt of developer proposals, the City will provide summaries—with identifying information removed—to the Task Force of viable responses and discuss the proposals. The Task Force will provide feedback as to which proposal(s) and aspects of proposal(s) it considers to best meet the community goals. As noted, this feedback will be formally considered as part of the selection criteria. Prior to final selection, the City will discuss the proposed selection with the Task Force.  Issued RFPs will state that developers will be required to work with the task force during the development, construction, leasing and operation of the project phase(s) in order to ensure ongoing dialogue between the Developer and the community.