BY LESLEY SUSSMAN
[media-credit name="Photo by Lesley Sussman" align="aligncenter" width="600"]
C.B. 3 Chairperson Dominic P. Berg listened, left, before Tuesday’s vote as advocates for 100 percent affordable housing at SPURA condemned the city’s plan.
| More than 40 years after the city bulldozed hundreds of Lower East Side homes and businesses as part of a contentious urban renewal effort, Community Board 3’s full board this week, in a historic vote, unanimously approved a city plan for the development of five blighted parcels of land at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.
And in a major new development, it was announced that the city has agreed that all affordable housing on the site will remain permanently affordable.
The plan would create a mixed-use, mixed-income development with affordable and market-rate housing units, retail and other commercial uses, and neighborhood amenities on the roughly 1.65-million-square-foot area. The site consists of a total of nine parcels of land bordered by Delancey St. on the north, Grand St. on the south, Essex St. on the west and Clinton St. on the east.
Collectively known as the Seward Park Urban Development Area, or SPURA, it is the largest swath of undeveloped city-owned private land in Manhattan south of 96th St. For more than four decades, community and special-interest groups have butted heads with the city — and with each other — over the details of how this publicly owned land should be developed.
That all changed Tuesday night in the jam-packed meeting at Henry Street Settlement’s Youth Services Gymnasium, at 301 Henry St. Emotions ran high among a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 local residents and members of various interest groups. Many of the latter, especially, were disappointed that the SPURA site would feature a mix of 50 percent market-rate apartments and 50 percent affordable housing, instead of 100 percent low-income housing.
Representatives of the 120,000-strong New York local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) were in attendance to advocate for local hiring on the SPURA site. Also making their voices heard at the meeting were members of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side, as well as a large contingent of the nonprofit Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) organization, which is in favor of more low-income housing on the site.
At times the meeting became somewhat raucous as residents who opposed the city plan for a mixed-use, mixed-income community at SPURA jeered speakers who spoke in support of the plan.
Many residents toted placards in Chinese, English or Spanish, urging the rejection of the city’s plan and demanding that priority be given to low-income residents in need of housing. Some wore T-shirts that read, “Remember and Rebuild,” while others donned yellow-and-green stickers that proclaimed, “Permanent Affordability,” a reference to the city’s original plan to limit affordable housing on the site to 60 years.
At one point during the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, a large contingent of GOLES members broke out into a chant of “Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a human right!”
But when all was said and done, community board members unanimously gave their support — with several conditions — to the city’s mixed-use, mixed-income development plan. The city’s plan was based on a series of development guidelines that were previously approved by C.B. 3.
As the process moves forward, the plan next will need approval by the City Planning Commission, the City Council and the mayor.
Among the several conditions that C.B. 3 recommended is a requirement for developers to include housing — including 50 percent affordable housing — in each phase of construction.
Board 3 also recommended a task force be created, composed of up to seven community board members, with representatives of local city councilmember and the borough president, plus two representatives of two local “stakeholder groups.” This advisory task force would have a role in drafting selection criteria for developers and would review development proposals.
The board also suggested adding a requirement that the project include multiple developers rather than a single developer.
C.B. 3 also called for removal of language in the land-use document allowing “big box” stores, such as Walmarts.
In addition, C.B. 3 advocated for a requirement that the city and/or developers pay relocation expenses for Essex Street Market vendors, and that rents be maintained more or less at their current levels. The board’s resolution indicated that C.B. 3 approved of the city’s plan to demolish the current Essex Street Market and relocate it on the south side of Delancey St. in a new building.
Finally, the board endorsed a “preference” for at least 50 percent local hiring during construction and by businesses leasing space in the Seward Park project.
The biggest surprise of the evening, however, came from Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez, who announced that the city had agreed to acquiesce to one of C.B. 3’s strongest demands: that any affordable housing built on the site remain affordable forever, as opposed to 60 years that the city had originally proposed.
This was corroborated at the meeting by Economic Development Corporation representative Alysson Konon, who told the board, “Yes, we’re absolutely committed to permanent affordability.”
David McWater, co-chairperson of C.B. 3’s Land Use Committee, told the board, “The folks at Economic Development Corporation were fighting hard to get us what we needed, and I appreciate it.” He added, “I also want to thank the city for being partners with us. But we still have a long road ahead of us.”
He was joined by C.B. 3 Chairperson Dominic P. Berg (formerly Pisciotta), who said, “We’re very happy to hear that the city has agreed to permanent affordable housing. I had faith that our elected officials would come around to this, but we had to show them where we stood on the issue.”
Several elected officials also reacted favorably to the city’s decision to permanently make affordable housing available at the development site. Jessica Silver, a spokesperson for Borough President Scott Stringer, said “We’re delighted by the news of permanent affordability. ”
A spokesperson for state Senator Daniel Squadron said, “There’s an overwhelming feeling of excitement at the news of permanent affordability. Congratulations to Community Board 3.”
Not everyone on the C.B. 3 board , however, was happy with the city’s last-minute announcement. Board member Harvey Epstein said he was “really troubled” that the city would make this concession at the 11th hour before the board voted on the measure.
“This is not the way to work with a community board,” he said. “This should not be the process.”
Also expressing mixed emotions was board member Carlina Rivera, a member of GOLES, who said, “I’m not certain this vote will best serve the community. It doesn’t do enough for low-income people who need housing.”
Councilmember Chin, who came under some criticism at the meeting for not taking a stronger position for 100 percent affordable housing, said the community had no stronger advocates on the City Council than she and Mendez.
“I’m glad I’m one of the city councilmembers responsible for bringing about SPURA after 45 years of waiting,” Chin said. “The city has heard us loud and clear and they are making the commitment to affordable housing. I’m going to continue to work for all the recommendations you tell us to work for.”
After the historic vote, C.B. 3 Chairperson Berg emotionally told community residents that what the community board had accomplished was “unprecedented.”“We’re going to be part of the actual development of the criteria for this development site,” Berg said. “We definitely have a place at the table and we’re grateful to have a partnership with the city on this.”
McWater told board members after the vote, “I’m speechless. Thank you for all the hard work and thanks to the city for being partners with us.”
It was a long evening of emotional speeches. Among the many residents who spoke during the meeting’s public session was former SPURA site tenant Tito Delgado. With tears in his eyes, he said, “I can’t believe this. I’ve waited for 45 years for this moment and the promise to let us return to a place where we were once evicted from.”