Parking Garage Feud Erupts at Seward Park Co-op (Updated)

Clinton Street entrance - Seward Park Co-op's parking garage.
Clinton Street entrance - Seward Park Co-op's parking garage.
Clinton Street entrance – Seward Park Co-op’s parking garage.

A switch to a valet parking firm for management of the garage at the Seward Park Cooperative has touched off controversy at one of the Lower East Side’s largest residential complexes. The contentious debate found its way on to NY1 yesterday, and has ignited accusations of gentrification.

Earlier this month, the board of directors voted to contract with Icon Parking to convert an underground garage and surface parking lot to a valet operation. The 380 residents with assigned spaces would now hand over their keys to an Icon employee to park their cars. Co-op management said the new system would help whittle down the parking waiting list (which includes 670 names). Apartment owners typically wait more than a decade for parking privileges. At the same time, Icon was preparing to accept single-day and hourly customers.

Last night, Board President David Pass was scheduled to brief Community Board 3’s land use committee about the changes. As the meeting got underway, Chairperson MyPhuong Chung announced that the presentation had been cancelled. But Chung said she had researched the situation and determined that the cooperative required a special permit from the Department of City Planning to increase the number of parking spots in the garage. The parking facility, she said, appears to be “non-compliant.” She also indicated permits are required from the Department of Buildings and Department of Consumer Affairs.

This morning we spoke with Frank Durant, general manager of the Seward Park Co-op, about the permit issues. He said the garage has not surpassed the numbers of cars allowed in its current Certificate of Occupancy (418 vehicles). He said the city has not imposed any violations for operations in the garage. Single-day customers won’t be admitted, he added, until Icon is certain all of the appropriate permits are in hand.

sphc meeting

Earlier this week, a group of residents opposed to the changes held a meeting to express their outrage with the board of directors. NY1 was there. One longtime cooperator battling the board is Don West, the president of the 7th Precinct Community Council. In an interview yesterday, he told us it’s wrong to “lock people out of the garage” and to take their parking spots. He called the new system “draconian.” West said the board acted without consulting residents, or even giving them sufficient information about the decision.

Another resident involved in the protests is Karen Blatt. She’s a member of Community Board 3 and a local district leader, but emphasized to us that she is speaking out only as an individual. In a recent email to the office of City Council member Margaret Chin, Blatt wrote, “The lack of transparency with which the Board of Directors instituted this valet system is astounding. Many of the garage parkers have been in the community for decades, they are primarily elderly, low-income, minorities and observant Jews. Many of them see this as a form of gentrification and harassment because they are the ones that are inconvenienced by this change.”

In a letter to the Manhattan Borough President, the board detailed its reasons for making the switch. It cited escalating property taxes and pressures to raise monthly maintenance fees. Earning additional revenue from the garage, the board argued, would lead to a “net financial benefit of approximately $500,000 per year.” It also touted the “added benefit to our neighbors” of “hourly/daily options for parking.”

Durant said he’s concerned about the negative turn the debate has taken in recent days. The board president, he told us, felt threatened last night at the community board meeting, causing him to cancel the scheduled appearance.

Monthly parking at the Seward Park Co-op costs $215 indoors and $178 outdoors. The complex opened in 1960 as a limited equity co-op, but the apartments are now subject to the free market. New residents today are paying upwards of $1 million for a 2-bedroom apartment. There are natural tensions between the newer residents and long-term cooperators, many of whom are living on fixed incomes.

UPDATE 3/11 This morning we heard from Don West, who took issue with Frank Durant’s assertion that the board president felt threatened at the community board meeting. West was not at the meeting, but said he spoke with residents who did attend. West pointed out that Durant wasn’t present, either, and is in no position to know whether threats were made. West said he’s confident no one acted inappropriately toward Seward park Co-op board members. Durant, for his part, told us he received a report from board members following the meeting.

On another point, CB3’s MyPhuong Chung contacted us with a clarification of her comments from the other evening. She said the Department of City Planning informed her that a special permit is required; it’s not a conclusion she reached on her own. Chung said she recommended to the cooperative that it contact the Department of Buildings and Department of Consumer Affairs for permits. She said it would be up to those agencies to determine whether permits are required. Chung said she did not state that the current garage might be “non-compliant,” but indicated that the proposed increase in parking spaces might be non-compliant.

CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer told us the community board is working with local elected officials and city agencies to determine whether complaints received about the garage warrant city violations and to find out what additional permits are required. Dealing with these issues are the extent of the community board’s involvement in the Seward Park controversy.