New group is working to get SPURA out of park, into gear


By Lincoln Anderson

Seeking to help break the decades-long deadlock that has gripped the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area in an exasperating paralysis of parking lots, a new group of young Grand St. residents has emerged backing a novel idea — compromise.

In that respect, the position of Sustainable Housing And Retail Expansion, or SHARE, is very much in line with the thinking of Community Board 3’s Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee. Working with a cross section of key community stakeholders, the C.B. 3 committee is near to approving redevelopment guidelines for the sprawling site, known as SPURA for short.

Brett Leitner, 37, who lives in the Seward Park Co-op on Grand St., founded SHARE six months ago. In sales at HBO, he’s lived in the co-op nine years. His wife has lived there since 1983 when she emigrated from Russia at age 10. They have two small children and reside in the same apartment his wife grew up in.

“We believe that compromise on SPURA is the only way,” Leitner recently told The Villager. “These derelict lots — it’s a shame, and it’s holding the neighborhood back,” he said of the open-air parking lots on the vacant blocks between Essex and Clinton Sts. and Delancey and Grand Sts. south of the Williamsburg Bridge.

In short, Leitner said, the Grand St. area “won’t be a 21st-century neighborhood” until the parking lots are redeveloped, revitalizing the neighborhood.

(C.B. 3 is also adding the Essex St. Market buildings, between Delancey and Rivington Sts., into the SPURA mix for possible redevelopment, though they weren’t part of the original renewal area.)

Other prominent SHARE members include Michael Tumminia, former president of Seward Park Co-op’s board of directors; Dave Bolotsky, who lives in Hillman Houses; and Jac Zagorry, whose wife is a Seward Park Co-op board of directors member.

Leitner said SHARE’s members, in large part, are emblematic of a group of new professionals, many in their 30’s, who have moved into what was formerly known as Co-op Village, the four Grand St. co-ops — Seward Park, Hillman, Amalgamated Dwellings and East River Housing, with a total of 4,500 units.  

“We represent a growing population of the Grand St. co-ops,” he noted.

These four developments were originally built by trade unions as affordable, limited-equity housing, but in the late 1990’s they all went market rate.

As part of “slum clearance” renewal, old tenements on the SPURA site were razed in the late 1960’s, displacing around 2,000 residents — many of them low-income — and a variety of small businesses.

Ironically, a stumbling block to SPURA’s redevelopment has been opposition from some Grand St. co-op residents to low-income and affordable housing on the site who fear it would lower their property values.

A mixed-use project

Under the latest version of the C.B. 3 guidelines — which the committee is expected to vote on in January — about half of the remaining space on the five vacant SPURA parcels would be developed with 1,000 units of housing. Of that amount, 500 units, would be market-rate housing, while the other 500 units would be a mix of affordable housing, with 20 percent moderate-rate housing, 20 percent low-income units and 10 percent low-income units for seniors. Forty percent of the site would be developed for retail and commercial use.

“It’s completely balanced,” Leitner said of C.B. 3’s guidelines. “The way they are shaping up and the way they are formulating is exactly in line with the goals of SHARE. They generally have taken the community’s interests into account. This has been a bottom-up process. I give a lot of credit to C.B. 3 for making progress on breaking the impasse that has stymied this process for 43 years.” He called David McWater, the committee’s chairperson, “a real leader.”

Leitner said about 350 people, mostly from the Grand St. area, have signed a petition by SHARE — either on paper or online — calling for compromise, mixed-use development and “progress” at SPURA.

“They want to see something happen,” he stressed.

Leitner personally said he thinks a movie theater would work well as part of the commercial development, noting the Lower East Side once boasted five cinemas. He added that while his understanding is that two other prominent community leaders who are not part of SHARE — Heshy Jacob and Joel Kaplan — are open to a Costco or Wal-Mart on the site, he opposes such big-box retailers, feeling they would harm local small merchants. In fact, the C.B. 3 guidelines ban big-box stores, though make an exception for a large movie theater.

Referring to Kaplan, who is the executive director of the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side, and Jacob, the manger of East River Housing, Leitner said, “They seem to be focusing only on retail — no housing on SPURA.” He called Kaplan and Jacob representative of “a strong minority” in the co-ops.

The two are allies of Sheldon Silver, the powerful Assembly speaker and longtime Grand St. resident. For years, Silver has been perceived as opposing low-income development on SPURA, though he has done so in more of a Sphinx-like, taciturn manner, rather than overtly.

“Sheldon Silver has certainly played a coy game of not taking any kind of leadership position on getting involved in the SPURA debate,” Leitner observed. “That’s smart politically — SPURA is sort of the third rail. I certainly hope if C.B. 3 passes the guidelines that he supports it,” he said of Silver. “I hope he doesn’t side with a narrow bloc or interest group against C.B. 3 if they pass it.”

Squadron: ‘Closer than ever’

On the other hand, Leitner said he felt state Senator Daniel Squadron should be commended for weighing in on the SPURA debate at last month’s C.B. 3 committee meeting.

“We’re closer than we have ever come to reaching community consensus for this site,” Squadron said in his remarks then. “That’s because of the work the Community Board 3 committee is doing. I look forward to continuing to work with the community in the days and weeks ahead to try and make a positive conclusion a reality.”  

“I feel very encouraged by Senator Squadron as a member of SHARE,” Leitner stated.

Leitner said he also understands the concerns of housing advocates, like Good Old Lower East Side, or GOLES, that are trying to maximize the amount of affordable units in any redevelopment plan.

“I am acutely aware that not all gentrification is positive,” he noted. “Some of the older residents of the neighborhood feel that gentrification has pushed out long-term residents.”  

At the same time, Leitner said, his wife recalls when she was growing up that the neighborhood was not as safe as it has become today.

“What really sustains a neighborhood are families and children and safety — and that’s what we’re seeing on the Lower East Side,” he said. “People are taking root here.”

He noted he and his wife are planning to send their 3½-year-old daughter to a local public school, and recently toured the alternative Earth School in the East Village. The Grand St. newcomers are deeply invested in the community and in shaping its direction, he stressed.

“Let’s have as much community engagement as possible to work together to figure out what will position this neighborhood for a brighter future, as a place to live, to work,” he said.

The moderate-income housing in the guidelines, in particular, would be a positive addition, he noted, feeling it would be a stabilizing element for the community, providing housing for working-class families.

A reason market-rate housing must be in the mix is that it would pay for the affordable housing, Leitner noted, adding that the SPURA plan is supposed to be financially self-sustaining. According to Leitner, the idea is for the city to sell the Seward parcels to developers at a “huge discount,” which would, in turn, subsidize the construction of affordable housing.

Impact on property values?

Leitner said he hears some neighbors in the co-ops arguing that adding more low-income housing on SPURA would decrease area property values. But he countered, “The parking lots that are there now are a drag on property values.”

The key, again, to freeing SPURA from its inertia, Leitner said, will be compromise, something C.B. 3’s McWater has also stressed.  

“GOLES is probably not going to get all the affordable housing they’d want, but they’re going to get a lot,” Leitner said. “Heshy and Joel might not get all the commercial and retail they’d want, but they’re going to get a lot. We have a very supportive agency with Bloomberg, and if this chance is lost, who knows what another administration will do?

“It’s a very diverse neighborhood and it’s a very historic neighborhood. And to develop SPURA at the expense of one group over another would not be keeping with the historic and diverse nature of the community,” Leitner added.  

He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that C.B. 3 will vote to pass the current guidelines.

“I don’t think a better deal is coming,” he stressed. “This is by far the best process and the guidelines are the best solution that we’ve seen in 43 years.”

Leitner said SHARE’s members and the co-ops’ new generation of owners are also indicative of a mindset change in the Grand St. co-ops, traditionally known as an Orthodox Jewish enclave. Many of the newcomers are Reform or Conservative Jewish or mixed-faith couples.

“The Jewish identity of the Lower East Side is alive — just in a new and more moderate way,” he explained. At the same time, he said, this new outlook is not “liberal social activist,” but “moderate-minded…left of center.”

“I consider myself a neighborhood activist, but I don’t consider myself a socialist,” Leitner said. “I’m not a union member — I’m a Democrat. I’m an Obama supporter.”

C.B. 3’s McWater said SHARE, though a new group, is definitely a key part of the mix on SPURA.

“I think SHARE plays a very important role and is a significant player, as they represent much of the changing demographic of the co-ops,” McWater said.

Spurns SPURA proposal

However, Jacob, for starters, expressed skepticism about SHARE’s petition, noting some entries are signed “anonymous.” About 15 of the roughly 120 signatures listed on SHARE’s Web site are anonymous.

Next, Jacob tallied the amount of affordable housing that, in fact, has been built on parts of the SPURA site since the 1960’s: 600 low-income units by Grand St. Guild Housing; 360 low-income units at Seward Park Extension public housing; 180 units in the Hong Ning senior residence; 125 units at the United Jewish Council’s Bialystoker senior residence; plus, two old buildings that weren’t razed under the urban renewal with a combined 75 units, for a total of 1,340 affordable units. If, under the C.B. 3 guidelines as now construed, a total of 1,000 units are added, with 300 of those being low-income, then, when all is said and done, SPURA will effectively be 70 percent low-income, Jacob calculated.  

“They want a site 70 percent low-income — I oppose it,” he stated bluntly. “That’s not called integration. That’s called segregation. … If you added 1,000 market-rate units, the site would still be 53 percent low-income.”

“We don’t live in Russia or China — people live where they can afford it,” said Jacob, who is not known for his political correctness. “I’d like to ask the mayor, how many low-income people live in his neighborhood? None.”

Jacob added that the site couldn’t have been all low-income back when it was razed since there were white people and Jews who lived there, and there were many thriving synagogues on the Lower East Side at that time. So, it’s a fallacy that a full 2,000 units of affordable housing must be replaced, he asserted.

He further said it would be a financial error for the city to sell the SPURA sites for below market rate. Instead, he suggested, the properties should be sold for maximum value, and the developers could then build the low-income housing somewhere else.

In the current economy, Jacob said, “It’s criminal for the city to sell this property for less than full value.”

Backs retail, commercial

The Grand St. leader argued that the Lower East Side already has one of the state’s highest percentages of low-income residents, so what’s really needed is jobs, not more low-income housing. There were an array of businesses on the SPURA site when it was razed, he noted.

Pointing to another commercial lack, he added, “There’s no nightlife on Grand St.”

Twenty years ago, Jacob recalled, he proposed a plan to make SPURA into a sweeping “international mall,” with restaurants, shopping and entertainment.

The idea was for a mix of cuisines and entrepreneurs, Jacob said, “Jews, Italians, Chinese, Hispanic, black, Polish, Russian, Mexican, Cuban — a beautiful quilt representing all the ethnic groups.” The city, though, didn’t bite.  

Returning to the present, Jacob said, yes, he would, in fact, support a Costco or Wal-Mart at SPURA, but he added, “I would require them to say, 50 percent of people that work there would be from the Lower East Side.”

He denied that the blocks of vast parking lots are bringing down the value of units at the Grand St. co-ops, where two-bedroom apartments are currently going for $500,000 to $600,000, on average. In fact, he noted, units at Seward Park Co-op — the development closest to the parking lots — are selling for 10 percent more.

Claims ‘75 percent’ support

A leader in the Grand St. Orthodox community, Jacob, who lives in Hillman Houses, is the manager of East River Housing and also president of Hatzolah volunteer ambulance service. He downplayed his leadership role, but did state, when he comes out publicly and in earnest with his position on SPURA, “75 percent of people in the area” will be standing with him.

Although he is a close ally of Silver, Jacob said he couldn’t offer any insight into what position the speaker will take on SPURA.

“I know nothing about what Shelly Silver is going to do,” he said. “Shelly will make his decision when he wants to. He’s one of the smartest men in the world that I know. There are people who have underestimated him and found they’ve been on the short end of the stick.”

U.J.C. Director Kaplan echoed Jacob, saying what’s needed at SPURA is “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.”

“We need to maximize job development, and we should keep some open space,” he said. “What was there before was jobs and stores — only Rite Aid has been added.”

Kaplan said he would support so-called 80/20 housing on the site, a mix of 80 percent market-rate, plus 20 percent affordable units, with the developer receiving tax incentives for building the affordable units. This is how many developers build nowadays, he noted, since it actually is more profitable than 100 percent market-rate projects.

Kaplan is a member of McWater’s C.B. 3 committee currently working toward finalizing the SPURA guidelines. Right now, he said, he would vote for 80/20 housing plus commercial development at SPURA. Although big-box stores aren’t allowed under the guidelines, he said he personally is not against the idea of having them there.

‘Everyone’s talking nicely’

Kaplan had high marks for the process so far, noting, “The best part is that everyone is talking to each other nicely. For that I have to give credit to David McWater, [C.B. 3 Chairperson] Dominic Pisciotta and John Shapiro.” Shapiro is a facilitator who has been hired by the city to help the board with the SPURA process.

In response to Kaplan, McWater noted, “The deal on the table will mostly be 80/20 and includes a remarkable amount of commercial space and economic development — around 600,000 square feet.”

As for GOLES, asked what the minimum amount of low-income housing the guidelines would have to contain to get the organization’s O.K., Joel Feingold, GOLES’s land-use organizer, said he couldn’t say yet.

“We are holding a member summit on Jan. 8,” he said. “After that, we’ll have a public position on depth and breadth of affordability, among many other concerns.”

Meanwhile, SHARE’s Leitner warned that either the advocates for or the opponents to low-income housing could bring the whole process crashing down. He and his group — from their position firmly in the center of the debate — will continue to advocate for compromise.

“I hope the better angels of everyone’s nature who has an interest in SPURA will win,” he said, “and that will lead each stakeholder to some compromise.”

It appears GOLES may be hoping to delay C.B. 3’s vote until February in a last-ditch effort to get more affordable housing in the guidelines. But Leitner said, unless GOLES has really identified a way to finance that additional housing, then it’s not worth postponing the vote.

As for Silver and Grand St.’s “old guard,” Leitner vowed they’ll regret it if they frustrate this latest promising SPURA effort.

“If Sheldon Silver does manage to sink this, there will be political ramifications,” Leitner stated.

“We’re growing — they’re shrinking,” he said of the new Grand Streeters, like those in SHARE, versus Silver’s traditional voter base.

“It will be noticed” if the anti-affordable housing faction defeats the SPURA proposal, he stressed. “He’s not elected for life. He’s not king for life,” Leitner said of Silver.

PHOTO: Heshy Jacob, far right, with from left, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; Jerry Hauer, former commissioner of the city’s Office of Emergency Management; and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in January 1999 on Grand St. after the Seward Park Co-op’s garage collapsed.

Silver speaks… briefly

On Wednesday, in response to the East Villager’s request for his position on SPURA and the current C.B. 3 guidelines for its development, Silver, through a spokesperson, issued the following statement:

“I have great respect for the members of Community Board 3 and for the process that is taking place to form a consensus about the future of Seward Park. I think it is important to allow that process to be completed before commenting.”

Broker on property values

Meanwhile, Bob Perl, an East Village real estate broker, said the claim that this latest SPURA proposal would bring down property values is absurd.

“It absolutely will not lower property values compared to what exists there now,” he said of the guidelines’ development mix. The parking lots are “a wasteland,” he said, separating Seward Park Co-op from the rest of the dynamic Lower East Side.

Perl said the proposed housing mix is much more “gentrified” than what’s typically found in the surrounding neighborhood for about a 1-mile radius.

“It will greatly improve property values in the surrounding area,” he said. “It will be a vibrant, fully occupied, residential, commercial development.”

Even if the new housing were 100 percent market rate, that would only cause a “minimal” bump up in property values compared to the 50 percent market-rate plan, and would actually have more impact on local retail, he said.

Perl added that part of why the Lower East Side is special is precisely because it is not homogeneous.

“It’s a great mix of socioeconomic levels,” he said. “That’s why many people move there. This is real New York. That makes it one of the best neighborhoods in New York.”