Seward Park housing plan is quietly pulled

By Ronda Kaysen

The city’s Economic Development Corporation and the Housing Preservation Department have abandoned plans to build 400,000 sq. ft. of affordable housing and 400,000 sq. ft. of commercial space in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area due to a lack of community consensus and support. The Seward Park property on the Lower East Side comprises the largest city-owned undeveloped site in Manhattan south of 96th St.

The two agencies informed Community Board 3 of their decision to scrap the controversial proposal, which would have also included a 66,000-sq.-ft. community facility for the site between Delancey and Grand Sts. near the Williamsburg Bridge, at a meeting with board officials on Sept. 22. The city has yet to unveil an alternative to its latest proposal.

“Clearly, they [E.D.C. and H.P.D.] didn’t get the response from the community they wanted,” said David McWater, C.B. 3 chairperson. Although the city has backed off its original proposal, McWater does not think this will end the discussion entirely. “I think there’s still a desire on the part of the city to do something,” he said.

The city’s decision not to act comes as welcome news for City Councilmember Alan Gerson. “I and many other people felt the mayor’s proposal was unsatisfactory and incomplete,” he told The Villager in a telephone interview. “It was not a full and balanced plan and they did not adequately go through a process of receiving full community input.”

Gerson sent E.D.C., the lead agency for the proposal, extensive comments, to which he did not receive a reply. No answer, according to Gerson, is answer enough. “If he [Mayor Bloomberg] was going to pursue it [the redevelopment proposal] we would have heard something,” he said.

The proposal, first unveiled in November 2003, was met with heavy and unyielding criticism from opposing factions of the community, some insisting the proposal did not go far enough in addressing the housing requirements of the city’s neediest residents and others decrying building new units of affordable housing instead of commercial development.

“It’s very sad that we cannot come to an agreement with the development of that area,” said City Councilmember Margarita Lopez. “It’s a lack of willingness to compromise. Given the absolute need of affordable housing, it’s shameful.”

Lopez does not represent the renewal area — and following the 2001 redistricting, most of the Grand St. co-ops were shifted into Gerson’s district — but she continues to support its development. Every mayor since Ed Koch has attempted — and failed — to develop the site, said Lopez. What is needed, she said, is a mixed-use plan for low- and middle-income housing interspersed with retail development. “We need to be very smart about how we develop that site,” she said. “It’s the last empty land that exists in Lower Manhattan.”

Some neighborhood residents insist that any new development should emphasize commercial property, not residential. The neighborhood needs jobs, said Heshy Jacob, manager of the East River Co-ops, not more low- and middle-income housing. “Why don’t we do something to help the people that already live here?” he said. “The people who live in the projects, they want jobs, but no one gives them the opportunity. Years ago, this area had many, many jobs. That’s what the city ought to be looking at.” Jacob suggested selling off the parcels of land to commercial developers who might bring jobs to the neighborhood, such as with a Home Depot. “The only thing the city has developed is low-income housing,” he said.

Low-income housing, in fact, is exactly what the neighborhood needs, according to affordable-housing advocates who criticized the plan for overlooking residents earning less than $20,000 per year. “Overall, Mayor Bloomberg’s plan [for affordable housing] has not reached down into the lowest income bracket,” said Margaret Hughes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, a neighborhood housing and preservation organization.

The city’s proposal for the Seward Park sites included 400 units of housing for low-income tenants earning about $20,000 per year and middle-income tenants earning between $40,000 and $80,000 per year. Critics of the plan argue that the city’s lowest-income residents earn as little as $15,000 per year.

Frustration over affordable housing in the Seward Park area dates back to 1967 when 2,000 apartments in the renewal area — housing mostly low-income individuals — were demolished. The displaced tenants were promised in writing they could return when new housing was built. Over three decades, only a portion of the site was rebuilt with affordable housing. Many of the five remaining vacant sites — all slated for development in the city’s proposal — are used for parking.

Although the 2003 plan is off the table, the mayor’s attention is still focused on the renewal area, said Carol Abrams, an H.P.D. spokesperson. “There are diverse feelings within the community of what they want [for Seward Park],” she said. “We’re trying to please as many people as possible and do what makes the most sense for the area.”

A call for comment to E.D.C. was not returned by press time.

Developing Seward Park fits in with the mayor’s longstanding commitment to residential development. Harriet Cohen, chairperson of Seward Park Area Revitalization Committee, or SPARC, an activist group, was disappointed to learn that the plan had been stalled and took the city’s lack of response as a sign of changing priorities. Cohen hopes to see the area developed with an emphasis on affordable housing. “The mayor said he wanted to make housing a centerpiece of what his administration did. We stepped forward and said you can start here,” she said.