Community Board 3’s land use committee last night blasted the city’s handling of a potential development initiative for the old Williamsburg Trolley Terminal site below Delancey Street. The panel approved a resolution, urging the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) to rescind its RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) until the community has an opportunity to help shape the document.
The RFEI was put out by the EDC on Nov. 23, in partnership with the MTA. They’re seeking “expressions of interest from qualified parties for development plans involving the long-term lease and activation of the vacant” trolley terminal, which has been dormant since 1948. The team behind the high profile Lowline underground park proposal has for several years been pushing the MTA to relinquish the space. The transit authority holds a long-term lease for the site.
Lusheena Warner, an EDC assistant vice president, said the city is looking for proposals now to take advantage of the momentum around the big Essex Crossing project. The nearly 2-million square foot commercial and residential complex is being built on nine sites adjacent to the subterranean trolley space.
She heard an earful from community board members. Bill LoSasso called the city’s failure to consult the community board in advance “borderline insulting.” He noted a similar approach when the city released a request for proposals last month for a development site on East 14th Street.
Another board member, Damaris Reyes, pointed out that one group in particular (The Lowline) has been advocating for the space. She said there are “concerns in the community” about the project and talk about “what could be there instead.” Reyes, head of the housing organization GOLES, asked, “Why now?” Given the tight deadline (applications must be in by Dec. 23), she said there’s worry that other proposals could be at a severe disadvantage. “The Lowline is a sexy idea,” Reyes said. “A lot of people think it’s a great idea. But our needs must be considered. This community is experiencing a lot of displacement… We need to consider the impact” of developing the site. “There should be a community process. Some of us feel so strongly about this that you will be hearing from us. This is not a closed matter.”
Warner explained that the EDC could issue a request for proposals after seeing the initial ideas, or it could begin negotiations with an applicant right away. A group of interested parties toured the site last Friday. She said the site would be subject to ULURP, the city’s land use approval process (community boards, the borough president and the City Council would all be consulted). Cathy Dang of the housing organization CAAAV said she’s concerned the trolley terminal RFP would interfere with another project, the Chinatown Working Group’s zoning proposal. “How did the idea come up to release this RFEI?,” she asked.
Board member Enrique Cruz suggested there might be viable alternatives to the Lowline, including the use of the underground space as a downtown bus terminal. “I hope the deck is not stacked against other proposals, ” he said. Board member Lisa Kaplan added, “It is imperative that what happens (on the site) is consistent” with the neighborhood’s character and for the benefit of the low income community” that lives in the area.
In June 2012, Community Board 3 voted 44-0 for a resolution strongly endorsing the Lowline project. It read, in part:
Community Board 3 officially supports the Delancey Underground project and its initiative to build a community‐centered “Lowline” public space, and looks forward to working closely with the Underground Development Foundation in ensuring that this new amenity is developed in partnership with and for the benefit of the Lower East Side community.
Last night, Lowline co-founder Dan Barasch was in the audience but was not called on to speak. We talked with him after the meeting and he later provided us with this statement:
The Lowline agrees completely that all members of the community should have adequate time to engage and respond with what should become of the former Williamsburg Trolley Terminal. We do hope we have the opportunity to present our proposal: a free community public space, powered by solar technology, and creating a natural oasis in the center of the neighborhood we love so much.
Barasch highlighted not only the past support of the community board but also that of local elected officials, non-profit organizations and private individuals (see a list of supporters here). “Over the last four years,” he said, “we have worked to gather input from thousands of people across the Lower East Side and surrounding neighborhoods.” He pointed to the Lowline’s Young Designers Program, which has engaged more than 1,000 young people within the community and two exhibitions in abandoned building of the Essex Street Market (one of which is going on now). “We’ve collected a ton of input, feedback, and ideas over these years,” said Barasch. “We look forward to continuing to engage more and more local community members, and we welcome any opportunity to improve community engagement and foster an inclusive design process.”
Warner, the city official, said the RFEI (as opposed to a request for proposals) is meant to be broad — to solicit the widest variety of ideas. She said the city is committed to taking community concerns into account. While deflecting the panel’s demands to rescind the RFEI, she said, “I understand where you’re coming from and I understand your frustration.” City officials tell The Lo-Down there was no effort to circumvent the community board. They say CB3 was advised last month that the RFEI was forthcoming, although, we’re told, there was no detailed briefing by the EDC at that time. The notification was apparently made so that the matter could be placed on CB3’s December meeting agenda.
If nothing else, last night’s meeting got out into the open opposition to the Lowline by groups such as GOLES, CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. These organizations are suspicious of the city’s motives, particularly since Alicia Glen, a high ranking administration official, has been a vocal Lowline supporter. It should be noted, however, that the resolution approved by the community board last night was focused solely on the city’s process. There was no mention of the merits or shortcomings of the Lowline project. The panel is asking the EDC to rescind the RFEI and to work with the community board to shape a new document that reflects community interests.
All members of the committee voted for the resolution with the exception of Tim Laughlin, head of the LES Business Improvement District (he abstained). The full board votes on the resolution Dec. 22, the day before the trolley proposals are due.
UPDATED 2:30 p.m. After last night’s meeting, the EDC has agreed to extend the deadline for applications. City officials and community board leaders are now discussing how to incorporate more neighborhood-based feedback into the process.