Volume 80, Number 29 | December 16- 22, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Jefferson Siegel

At a housing rally at the SPURA site last November, Councilmember Margaret Chin, at left, said, “Forty-two years... . I think it’s a moral question. Affordable housing has to be part of the equation. The opportunities are endless if we can come together and work together.” 

Vote postponed on SPURA; Idea is half market rate

By Lesley Sussman

If the devil is, indeed, in the details, then a Community Board 3 committee that for nearly two years has been trying to draft comprehensive guidelines for the future development of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area along Delancey St., seemed this week to be in dire need of an exorcist.

At a meeting on the evening of Mon., Dec.13, at the Henry Street Settlement, 301 Henry St., members of C.B. 3’s Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee spent nearly four hours painstakingly reviewing the details of the first draft guidelines that were presented to the committee last month, and arguing over many of these details.

Since last month’s presentation, some changes to the guidelines had been considered following suggestions by committee and community members. Panel facilitator John Shapiro, an urban planner and mediator, was hired by C.B. 3 to guide the committee toward a proposal that would be satisfactory to the various factions on the committee, as well as to various city agencies.

When all was said and done, the committee finally agreed on only one thing: to put off any vote on the guidelines until next month and, maybe, even later.

The development area, known as SPURA for short, consists of 10 sites that have been vacant for nearly 43 years after the wholesale razing of blocks of residential buildings by the city for a never-completed urban renewal plan.

The empty swath of open-air parking lots on the south side of Delancey Street at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge is the largest site of undeveloped city-owned land in Manhattan south of 96th St.

At the marathon Monday night meeting, which was attended by about 100 local residents — who by 10 p.m. had dwindled down to just a handful — committee members listened to a lineup of community members who emotionally spoke out on how this city-owned wasteland should be developed.

Speakers’ opinions ranged widely, from Grand Street News editor Yori Yanover, who said he opposed any housing on the site whatsoever, and, instead, wanted to see a recreational area developed there, to representatives of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), an activist group advocating for mostly low-income housing to be built there.

Adrienne Chevrestt, a member of St. Mary’s Parish, told committee members that SPURA’s proposed development was “The last hope for people who are poor and who want to live on the Lower East Side.”

She was followed by Brett Leitmer, chairperson of the Sustainable Housing And Retail Expansion (SHARE) group, which endorsed the current draft guidelines as a “Fair and evenhanded compromise that is radically moderate in its approach.”

Afterward, committee members got down to the lengthy process of re-examining their second draft guidelines section by section. While there had been some expectation that the committee, after six previous meetings, would vote this evening on a finalized draft that could be presented to the full community board and to the city before the end of the year, a vote failed to materialize.

Instead, exhausted committee members, under the advice of Shapiro, decided to delay any formal vote on the guidelines until next month, a move that infuriated committee chairperson Dave McWater. The chairperson said such continued delays could put the entire development project in jeopardy because the city might eventually lose interest in the project if there was no swift community consensus.

“I think it’s insane to delay this any further,” McWater, who has been pushing for a completed “statement of principles” by this month, asserted. “Right now, we have a deal with the city where we have no losers. If we keep delaying this and a new administration comes in, we can lose everything.”

McWater also urged an end to the bickering between committee factions representing various area stakeholders.

“To factionalize ourselves over this issue is to defeat our chances of building homes for people,” he said. “It’s just not worth factionalizing ourselves.”

Shapiro, meanwhile, said that he was pleased with the progress being made, but wanted more time before a vote was taken.

“When we vote on this we need to be confident,” he said. “I don’t feel we have this confidence right now. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is still the income mix for the property. We have to have a full consensus before we vote on it.”

The facilitator said he also wanted more time in order to engage in one-on-one meetings with various neighborhood stakeholders on the committee to make certain that there will be no “surprise ambushes” when the proposal is finally presented to city agencies for their consideration.

In one positive sign of consensus, the panel informally agreed on what percentages of types of housing should be built on the proposed development site. The new formula calls for 50 percent market-rate housing, 10 percent middle-income housing, 10 percent moderate-income housing, 20 percent low-income housing and 10 percent senior citizen housing.

Michael Tumminia and Linda Jones, committee members who represent the interests of Seward Park Co-op members — a group that, along with residents from the other Grand Street Co-ops and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, has generally opposed low-income housing on the site — said they found the new formula to be O.K.

“I think once we carefully explain the plan to our members, they’ll also find it acceptable,” Tumminia said.

Jones, meanwhile, said, “While the mayor would like to keep the parking lots there forever, we don’t.” She added that, at night, the poorly lit area around the sprawling parking lots is dangerous for residents of her development.

Also giving tentative approval to the formula was committee member Damaris Reyes, executive director of GOLES. Reyes emphasized, however, that while she was not initially opposed to the new housing-mix formula, “There’s still a long ways to go before I can vote for it.”

“Let’s really iron this out and vote in February,” Reyes said. “The holidays are coming up and this is a decision that after 45 years needs to be carefully hashed out. Let’s discuss it next month and then come back in February.”

The touchy subject of how much low-income housing should be developed on the site came up at several points during the meeting. Reyes said she was deeply upset by the remarks of some committee members that if the site was developed primarily for poor people, it would increase crime in the nearby Grand St. and Seward Park Co-ops.

“I don’t want to hear this,” she said. “I live across the street from these co-ops and I don’t want to hear that they don’t want more people like me living in this neighborhood.”

Her sentiments were echoed by committee member Herman Hewitt, a real estate broker, who said, “I’m not sure what all this fear is about. People should stop this. It sounds racist. Public housing will not affect market-rate unit sales in the area.”

Dominic Pisciotta, C.B. 3 chairperson, who earlier in the meeting said that he wanted to see a “balanced community” on the site, said afterward that he was not disappointed by the month-long delay and wasn’t fearful that the entire deal with the city would fall apart if delays continued.

“I think there was progress,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to vote tonight, so I guess we’re not far from where we ought to be. I’m hopeful that we can potentially have a vote in January.”




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