City floats new Seward Park plan with affordable housing and retail


By Lincoln Anderson

City officials came to the Lower East Side to present outlines of a new plan for the remaining sites in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area last week. They were met by one overwhelming response: “Affordable housing!” “Low-income housing!”

Thirty-five years ago, 2,000 apartments housing mostly low-income individuals and families were emptied in the urban renewal site between Delancey and Grand Sts. near the Williamsburg Bridge, and the tenements demolished. The former tenants were promised in writing they could return when new housing was built. However, in the ensuing decades, only a portion of the cleared area was rebuilt with affordable housing for the displaced tenants. Today, five sites remain vacant, with some filled with parking for shoppers.

About 150 vocal residents attended a Community Board 3-sponsored meeting at the Educational Alliance last Thursday to hear officials from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Economic Development Corp. present the new plans.

Most of them members of the new Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition, or SPARC, a coalition of 16 neighborhood groups, they sported yellow tags on their lapels saying “Support Low-Income Housing in Seward Park Area.”

Under the new proposal, the city would build 400,000 sq. ft. of affordable housing with 400 apartments, 400,000 sq. ft. of commercial retail space and 66,000 sq. ft. of community-facility space, which could be cultural or recreational.

The smaller three of the five sites — Sites 1, 3 and 5 — would include affordable housing, including 300 low-income and 100 middle-income apartments. The low-income apartments would be available to people earning annual incomes of about $20,000. The middle-income apartments would be targeted at people earning $40,000 to $80,000 a year. The project would not rely on any federal housing subsidies but would be all city-funded. No market-rate rental apartments are contained in the project.

However, under the city’s plan, the two largest vacant sites — Sites 2 and 4 — which under zoning could potentially support the tallest housing, would only be developed with two-story commercial bases and no housing, at least for now. But they would be built to support possibly adding housing on top at a later point. Types of commercial tenants might include a medium-sized big-box store and a supermarket. The stores would front on Delancey St.

The agency officials, Bill Traylor, of H.P.D., and Barbara Resnikow and Marilyn Lee, of E.D.C., stressed it was just a preliminary plan that had emerged from discussions within the administration.

“Nothing is frozen, nothing is set in stone,” Resnikow said. “We know we’re not going to settle it tonight. With the approval process, we know it’s going to be a long haul. We want to get this going while we’re still in a rising economy.”

“Who is this for? And what community is this for?” a man shouted indignantly at the back of the room. “This is talking like this is going to happen! This is not going to happen until the people of the Lower East Side say it’s going to happen!”

“Yeah, $100,000 [rent], kick us all out!” yelled someone else.

Said Board 3 member Lisa Kaplan, referring to the displacement of low-income tenants in 1967, “As you can see, for most of the people here…they want to see a sizable portion of the site redeveloped for low-income.”

Noting that in the last 25 years only one project has been built in the renewal area, Kaplan said, “I’m afraid we’ll get one piece, but not the whole thing…that we don’t just end up with a piece of the puzzle.”

The city officials said the reason more housing isn’t included in the plan right now is concern that adding too many units could overwhelm the area.

To that, board member Greg Heller said, “I find it preposterous that we can’t absorb 800 units, instead of 400 units.”

The Bloomberg administration plans to spend six more months planning the project, then issue a request for proposals for developers for the sites, to be followed by nine months of environmental studies, after which the community board will get a chance to review the plan under the uniform land-use review procedure.

Whether to develop the remaining sites mainly commercially or mainly for low-income housing has been a perennial sticking point. Joel Kaplan, another board member, said commercial development could help the neighborhood, providing employment opportunity.

“When I hear the word ‘retail,’ I hear ‘jobs,’ ” he said. “The site before had many businesses and there’s not been any new commercial to replace the businesses that were there.”

In general, veteran housing activists said while it could be better, the current plan appears pretty good. In response to a question by Valerio Orselli, of the Cooper Sq. Committee, as to the units’ income levels, Traylor explained that the low-income units would be for people earning 40 to 60 percent of area median income, while the moderate-income units would be for people earning 80 to 135 percent of area median income.

“O.K. That’s not bad,” Orselli said approvingly, then quickly added, stretching the envelope, “What about 30 percent [of] median income?”

Dressed in purple and wearing a “Free Mumia” sign on her back, Frances Goldin, said she had witnessed the displacement of “2,500 families from E. Broadway and Grand St.” A founding member of the Cooper Sq. Committee, which guided the redevelopment of the Cooper Sq. Urban Renewal Area, which is now entering its final phase of construction, she called the city’s latest offering for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area “a very good start.”

But Goldin warned that building any market-rate housing on the sites would be inappropriate with apartments now renting from $2,000 to even as high as $5,000 in the East Village.

(A past attempt to build market-rate apartments on the Seward Park site failed; in 1988, developer Sam LeFrak hoped to build a 1,200-unit mixed-income project including luxury condos, but the plan was dropped in the face of community opposition.)

“Your plan is good,” Goldin said. “It could be better.” Talking to The Villager later, she said Sites 2 and 4 were the prime sites for housing, since zoning allowed tall towers there on the scale of the nearby Seward Park Co-ops.

One woman wanted to know if there would be apartments for people making as little as $11,000 a year. Another audience member noted people on welfare, the unemployed and many seniors don’t take in $20,000 annually, and couldn’t afford the apartments.

Others pointed out there are deep waiting lists for affordable apartments in local Mutual Housing Associations.

“You have to understand, this is the only spot we have left,” said the leader of a local M.H.A. of the renewal area.

Added Democratic District Leader Rosie Mendez, “I hear 400 units and 2,500 people displaced — that’s not good enough.”

Mary Varone, 84, feared everyone will want to come to the Lower East Side to live in the new affordable apartments “because the Lower East Side’s the best place to live.” Traylor said there will be a community preference for 50 percent of the apartments and that one of the sites may be for senior housing.

Others wanted a commitment that the project will use local laborers as much as possible, but E.D.C.’s Resnikow said it becomes difficult when unions get involved.

“I don’t understand,” said another woman in the audience, asking how Europe was rebuilt so rapidly from the rubble after World War II, while the Seward Park site has sat empty for 35 years.

“We need to apply for foreign aid!” someone called out, prompting guffaws.

“I think there’s a consensus that people want more affordable housing,” Epstein said.

“Low-income!!” the crowd shouted back.

“We agree!!” said Epstein, throwing up his hands with a smile.

Kaplan read the board’s committee resolution supporting “the transformation of this long-fallow area into a thriving and affordable mixed-use community with an emphasis on residential development for low- and moderate-income housing serving all races, ethnic and income groups in our community.”

Other points in the resolution were that the plan should be “an integrated package, not piecemeal,” that the R.F.P. must make accommodations for the former displaced tenants and that business development enhancing the area’s existing small businesses be emphasized and that the city provide meaningful opportunity for community input throughout the plan’s conceptualization and implementation.

Afterwards, speaking to The Villager, Epstein called the city’s proposal a good start but said that if affordable housing were included on Sites 2 and 4 they could get 800 units instead of only 400.

“It’s a good first step,” he said. “It makes us think the city is serious about doing affordable housing there. Four hundred is good. But we’d like to see the project developed as fully as possible. They said, ‘We’ll build [housing] on 2 and 4 later.’ But that could be 35 years later.”