Community Activists Question Makeup of Seward Park Task Force, Criticize Secrecy

Seward Park redevelopment area.
Seward Park redevelopment area.

The warm, fuzzy feeling that prevailed last week after the City Council voted to approve the Seward Park redevelopment plan did not last long.  Last night, Community Board 3’s chairperson, Gigi Li, announced the appointees of a new task force created to work with the city to evaluate proposals from developers.  The makeup of the panel did not go over well with several members of CB3’s land use committee, which spent the past three years hammering out a compromise plan for the seven-acre site near the Williamsburg Bridge.

Task force members will include Chairperson Li, former CB3 Chair Dominic Berg, CB3 Land Use Committee Co-chairs David McWater and Linda Jones (sharing a seat), Lisa Kaplan (a CB3 member and Council member Rosie Mendez’s former chief of staff), CB3 member Karen Blatt, LES BID Executive Director Bob Zuckerman and University Settlement Executive Director Michael Zisser.  Matt Viggiano (Council member Margaret Chin’s land use director),  Vanessa Diaz (Council member Mendez’s current chief of staff) and a representative of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s staff will also have seats on the task force.

At least four members of the land use committee said they were troubled by the selections.  But Damaris Reyes, executive director of neighborhood preservation organization GOLES,  was by far the most vocal critic last night.  “I really feel I need to point out the lack of diversity in this panel — ethnically, racially and geographically,” said Reyes.  The panel, she added, does not represent the broad community on the Lower East Side.  “I urge you to reconsider. There’s an entire population whose opinions should be heard,” Reyes implored.

When the Seward Park planning process got underway in 2008, CB3 invited a lot of different organizations and individuals to take part in the deliberations.  They included affordable housing groups (such as GOLES) as well as residents of the Grand Street cooperatives, who had historically opposed building more affordable housing on the Seward park site.  In the end, the committee settled on a 50/50 compromise — half market rate housing, half affordable housing.   The committee voted 19-1 in favor of the compromise in January of 2011. The lone dissenter was Damaris Reyes, who had been arguing for more than 50% affordable units at Seward Park.

Chairperson Li said she considered many factors in deciding who should serve on the task force, which will be helping to create a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) for the Seward Park project, and to review applications from private developers.   Questioned about the criteria, Li said she sought appointees with experience in land use issues, with a track record working with government agencies and people who represented various geographic sections of the larger neighborhood.  “Obviously there were a limited number of seats,” she said. “I did not make these decisions lightly… but these are the people I’m comfortable with.”

The establishment of the task force was championed by Dominic Berg, CB3’s former chair, as a way of making sure that the city adheres to community priorities embedded in the land use application (ULURP) just approved by the Council.   The members will be required to sign confidentiality agreements, since city rules aimed at giving all applicants a fair chance prohibit information about development proposals from being publicly released.  Task force members will be very limited in what they will be able to tell the community board and the larger community about individual applications from developers.   The panel is a separate entity from CB3, since almost all community board meetings must be open to the public.   Last night, Berg said he does not envy Li, who probably would have faced criticism no matter who she had picked for the task force.

Joining Reyes in expressing reservations about the selections were land use committee members Harriet Cohen, Steve Herrick and Val Orselli.  Cohen, who leads the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition (SPARC), said, “I don’t feel that this task force represents the spirit of what we did for the past three years.”   Reyes pointed out that the panel is “Grand Street-centric.” Three members of the co-ops are represented.  Longtime CB3 member Herman Hewitt noted that there is a “huge burden” on the task force to represent a wide variety of community interests.  “It could get really ugly,” he warned.  There were also concerns voiced by at least one organization not represented the past three years on the Seward Park committee.  JoAnn Lum of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower east Side said, “the task force should represent the entire community, low income, working people particularly.”

Aside from the misgivings about the task force’s composition, there were also sharp questions last night about the lack of transparency in the RFP process.  Lisa Kaplan, who was appointed to the task force, said, “I can’t imagine being able to serve without some level of (information) sharing (with the community).”   Alyssa Konon, executive vice president with the Economic Development Corp. (EDC), said the city remained committed to telling CB3 members and the Lower East Side community as much as possible about the proposals that come in and about the process being used to select developers.  David McWater, CB3’s land use committee co-chair, added that there would be ample opportunity to give feedback to task force members, which they would then be able to share during their private deliberations.

Another EDC official, David Quart, said the city plans to release the Seward Park RFP in early January.  Some land use committee members questioned why the accelerated timetable is necessary. The concern, they argued, is that the RFP will be rushed to completion even if there are “stumbling blocks” and conflicts that need to be resolved.   In response, Konon said the RFP will be largely based on the already-approved land use application, so it’s a fairly straightforward process.  Task force members will convene every two weeks. “It’s important to keep up the momentum,” Konon said.

Val Orselli, a land use committee member, asked whether “politics” was a factor in the accelerated timetable.   In the past, city officials have conceded that there’s great urgency to move the Seward Park project along while Michael Bloomberg is still mayor.  Konon did not answer Orselli’s question.   Officials did indicate that the city would likely give developers about three months to submit proposals.  The task force will begin discussing responses sometime next summer.