Volume 80, Number 4 | June 23 - 29, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Lesley Sussman

David McWater, C.B. 3 Housing and Land Use Committee chairperson, center, and Dominic Pisciotta, C.B. 3 chairperson, left, played “The Development Game.” McWater got a chuckle out of it, but others didn’t.

What’s in cards for Seward site? C.B. 3 is game

By Lesley Sussman

Members of Community Board 3’s Housing and Land Use Committee were told in no uncertain terms at a Mon., June 21, meeting that they needed to get their act together if anything was ever going to be done by the city to develop five parcels of land south of Delancey St. at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge that have remained vacant for more than 40 years.

John Shapiro, a professional planner and facilitator, has been working with the committee and various city agencies for the past four months to try to find a compromise between different local interest groups involved in the Seward Park Renewal Area project. Speaking at Monday’s meeting, Shapiro cautioned that unless a united front was presented to the city, the project would continue to remain on hold.

Shapiro said that, from talking to officials of various city agencies, he has found, “There is the highest level of interagency cooperation on this project that I’ve ever seen.

“If we can really come together on this in a united way, then we will have the city leadership standing behind the committee,” Shapiro stated. “This is the most valuable site in the city’s portfolio right now. It’s an opportunity, and we should take advantage of it now.”

The committee meeting, held at University Settlement, 184 Eldridge St., was attended by about 100 people. It was the second of four meetings the Housing and Land Use Committee has planned with professional mediators in an effort to work out a consensus of community opinion on the use of the
1.5-million-square-foot site.

The most contentious issue is the amount of low-income, middle-income and market-rate housing that should be built on the property — now used primarily for open-air parking. The site is the largest tract of undeveloped land owned by the city in Manhattan south of 96th St.

There has already been decades of controversy over exactly how to develop the parcels of land, which have remained vacant since 1965 when they were first acquired as part of an urban renewal plan to develop low-income housing.

While C.B. 3 has been trying hard over the past years to draft a statement of principles as to exactly what kind of housing and commercial development should take place at the site — and has come up with some general agreement — the devil has been in the details.

Part of the problem is that Grand St. co-op residents are generally staunchly against turning the site into mainly low-income housing, while some community groups, such as Gold Old Lower East Side (GOLES), are proponents of building mostly affordable housing for the poor. The bickering between various community groups has discouraged the city from getting involved in the urban renewal project.

At Monday’s meeting, some pre-Fourth of July fireworks erupted after Shapiro and co-facilitator Eve Baron introduced a “development game” created by the facilitators and the city’s Economic Development Corporation, in which members of the committee spent nearly an hour filling out game cards indicating what they would like to see constructed on the site.

Although the “game” served the serious purpose of gauging the development priorities of committee members, the exercise did not sit well with some community residents who were forced to await the conclusion of the lengthy exercise in an un-air-conditioned room on a hot summer night.

When the cards were collected, several residents stood up to express dismay that the entire meeting had been devoted to discussing issues ranging from the type of retail to be built on the site to infrastructure costs, while nothing was said about the hundreds of tenants who were displaced by the urban renewal project decades ago and promised that they would be allowed to return and live in any new housing that was built there.

Tito Eldegado, one of the original site tenants who was born at 145 Clinton St. and lived there for 15 years before the building was razed and his family was displaced, said, “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity to talk for 45 years, and they sit here and play a stupid game. Why aren’t they talking about those of us who were forced out of those buildings when they tore them down?

“They don’t understand that this isn’t a housing issue, it’s a civil rights issue,” he continued. “People were forced off their land. Where’s the government’s role in all this. Isn’t it their job to protect their citizens?”
His sentiment was echoed by George Escalante, a longtime Lower East Side resident, who angrily told the committee, “A lot of people didn’t come here to play games. Let’s talk about housing for the poor.”

Meanwhile, Adrienne Chevrestt, a 30-year resident of Masaryk Towers, took Shapiro to task for his saying that the committee was dragging its feet.

“It’s unfair to tell neighborhood people that you need to get your act together,” she asserted. “Affordable housing for poor people has always been our most important issue.

“Let’s stop talking about offices and, instead, about those residents who were promised a right to return. That’s the bottom line,” she added. “The people who were sent away need to come back. But, somehow, we’ve gotten lost in the details of the project.”

Committee member Val Orselli, director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, meanwhile, told Shapiro that he was dissatisfied with the discussion because he wanted guarantees from the city that once a plan was proposed, it would not be altered by any future mayoral administration.

“We want assurances that, if the mayor changes, that this development won’t be affected because of politics,” Orselli said. “How do we get a specific letter of detail from the city with such an assurance?”

Shapiro replied, “There were no assurances of this.” He again cautioned that if this concern and others like it further delayed coming up with a unified community proposal, “then this whole development might be in danger of coming to an end.”

The meeting, which was attended by representatives of local politicians and the city’s Economic Development Corporation, also heard from City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who said she was hopeful that “we can all come together on this.”

After the meeting, Chin told The Villager that she was satisfied with the way the meeting had been conducted.

“I think the process is very good and we’re moving along,” she said. “Hopefully, we will get more and more community people involved in the task force.”

Chin added that she was not discouraged by the vast differences of opinion she has heard expressed by various stakeholders in the project.

“We can always get together,” she said. “I’m an optimist.”

Dave McWater, former C.B. 3 chairperson and current chairperson of the board’s Land Use, Zoning, Public and Private Housing Committee, also said he was satisfied with the way the meeting was conducted.

“Two or three months ago we acquired John Shapiro and we’re now going through a four-month process with the facilitators,” he explained. “This is the second meeting and the third is scheduled for July 12.”

After collecting the “game” cards, Shapiro said that the results will be analyzed and fully discussed at the committee’s upcoming July meeting.

“We’ll take a close look at all of this and see if it boils down to two or three scenarios,” he said. “This will help you move one step forward and propel you into the future. Ideally, we will progress enough this summer to come up with a resolution by the community board as to what should be done with the site.”

Shapiro said a quick study of the cards showed that there was “across-the-board support” for additional retail, and that most of the committee members also wanted a movie theater or entertainment complex located on the site. The cards, he added, also indicated a desire for commercial and nonprofit office space, and for a new public school to be built there.

Shapiro also said that he did not see any overwhelming support for more parks and plazas in a preliminary reading of the cards, and that they, again, indicated there was a wide array of opinions about the amount and type of housing and retail space to be built on the site.

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