SPURA vote unanimous; Task force picks contentious

A rendering created by city agencies for a presentation this past March at Community Board 3 showing how the area south of Delancey St. might look once developed under the SPURA plan.

BY LESLEY SUSSMAN    |   On Thurs., Oct. 11, the City Council, in a historic 48-to-0 vote, approved the long-delayed Seward Park Urban Renwal Area redevelopment plan. Less than a week later, representatives of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and its Department of Housing Preservation and Development appeared before Community Board 3’s Land Use Committee to begin the next phase of the process — the drafting of a request for proposals (R.F.P.) document for the massive project.

The R.F.P. will outline the city’s criteria for development of the 1.65-million-square-foot SPURA site at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge and is expected to be made available to potential developers in early January.

In an agreement worked out between the city and C.B. 3, a joint task force must first be formed to help craft the R.F.P., review proposals once they have been submitted and have a role in the final selection of a developer. The task force will be comprised of five C.B. 3 representatives, Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez, Borough President Scott Stringer and two members from local stakeholder groups.

The Tues., Oct. 16, meeting, at Project Renewal, 333 Bowery, was filled with fireworks as several C.B. 3 Land Use Committee members objected strenuously to the choice of five Board 3 members who will serve on the community task force. The two community stakeholder slots still remain unfilled.

Leading off the criticism was committee member Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a community group that has continued to strongly advocate for 100 percent affordable housing on the SPURA site.

“The lack of geographic, ethnic and racial diversity on this task force really troubles me,” Reyes said. “Although they’re good people, it’s made up mainly of Grand St. folks and no one from north of the site — especially low-income Latinos who live in public housing projects. It’s really not a fair representation of the community. I urge you to reconsider this because we need different points of view on this task force.”

C.B. 3 Chairperson Gigi Li made the appointments, and defended them at the meeting.

“These were not decisions I took lightly,” Li said. “What I was looking for in appointees was familiarity in working with the city and the complicated technical details of the R.F.P.s, and putting together a solid team that is able to carry out the vision that this board has for this project.

“I chose individuals I had conversations with who I thought could help move the process ahead and were able to commit the time required,” Li said. “There is also geographical diversity. With the limited number of seats there were different variables that went into consideration, and the people I have now make a good team moving forward.”

The five C.B. 3 representatives named to the task force are Li, former board chairperson Dominic Berg, Lisa Kaplan, Karen Black and a seat shared between Linda Jones and David McWater, the board’s Land Use Committee chairperson.

Meanwhile, in two related developments, Mayor Bloomberg, who must officially sign off on the SPURA plan, issued a statement on Fri., Oct, 12, indicating his support of the City Council’s vote, which took place the previous day.

“Seward Park has long had the potential to bring new jobs, new housing and new retail options to one of New York City’s most vibrant neighborhoods,” the mayor said. “Today, we know that that potential will be realized. After nearly half a century of sitting dormant, this piece of real estate — some of the most valuable underdeveloped land anywhere — will finally be transformed. Thanks to a historic and unprecedented community planning process, the plan that is moving directly reflects the input of residents, community members and other stakeholders.”

Also on Friday, Councilmember Chin’s office released a statement that took sharp aim at the Coalition to Protect the Lower East Side and Chinatown — an alliance of neighborhood groups pushing for 100 percent affordable housing on the SPURA site and which is angling for representation on the new SPURA task force.

The coalition held a Chinatown press conference earlier in the day at which its members were highly critical of Chin, accusing her of having caved in to the city by agreeing to 50 percent affordable housing on the sprawling site instead of the 100 percent figure the coalition and other local activist groups are advocating for.

Chin called the coalition’s remarks “outright lies” and said the group was “grossly misrepresenting” her position regarding affordable housing on the site. The statement from her office went on to say, “We condemn materials distributed in Chinese at the press conference today that refer to the councilmember in extremely derogatory language.”

“The Coalition does not speak for this community,” Chin retorted. “They are not even from this community. I have spent my entire life in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and I have dedicated my life to fighting for resources for this community. I am nobody’s puppet.

“I am not pushing anyone’s agenda,” she added. “SPURA is a huge victory in the history of the Lower East Side. We now have 500 units of permanent affordable housing and a commitment to build more affordable housing at a lot on Spring St.

“Over the last 20 years, I have continued to grow and fight for my community. I am very proud of this accomplishment,” Chin continued. “The Coalition has grossly misrepresented the facts when its comes to SPURA and they should apologize to our community for their actions.”

At the Oct. 16 C.B. 3 Land Use Committee meeting, aside from the objections raised about the choice of board members for the new task force, concerns were also aired about a confidentiality agreement that task force members must sign, as well as about the city’s fast-paced development schedule.

David Cort, a representative of E.D.C., said he wants the R.F.P. to be completed by January.

“Responses will be due in the spring. Then the evaluation process begins,” he said, adding, “Preference will be given to those proposals that include a local partner.”

Alicia Posner, another E.D.C. official, said that concerns that the timeframe is too short to attract responsible developers — especially with the holiday season coming up — were “hypothetical.”

“We have an opportunity here to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Yes, it’s an aggressive timeline, but I think we can meet it.”

Land Use Committee member Herman Hewitt, meanwhile, told city officials he was “concerned” about the confidentiality agreement that would prohibit task force members from sharing some information about their deliberations.

He was supported by fellow committee member Lisa Kaplan, who said, “There has to be a higher level of sharing information.”

A representative of H.P.D. said the confidentiality requirement was necessary. He explained that members of his department were legally bound not to release information about which developers were under consideration.

“We’re expanding our normal procedure by sharing our information with the task force,” he explained. “We expect them to respect the same confidentiality.”

Several days earlier, at the Oct. 11 City Council vote, it took councilmembers less than an hour to pass the long-awaited SPURA plan. The unanimous vote came after more than 45 years of inaction on the property because community residents and the city were unable to reach agreement on how best to develop the site.

SPURA consists of five vacant plots of city-owned land between Delancey and Grand Sts. that are now largely occupied by several open-air parking lots, and includes some adjacent property as well. The huge swath of land became available after thousands of homes and businesses once located there were bulldozed in the name of urban renewal.

The newly approved plan calls for a 60/40 mix of residential and commercial space. It will create 1,000 units of housing on the site. Half of these units will be permanently affordable housing for low-, moderate- and middle-income households, with 10 percent of these units set aside specifically for low-income senior citizens.

Low-income units at SPURA will be open to individuals with an annual income of income less than $34,000. Families with an annual income of less than $49,000 will also be eligible for affordable units at the SPURA site.

Ten percent of the units will be reserved for moderate-income individuals making up to $75,000 annually, or families making up to $107,000 annually. Another 10 percent of the residential units will be reserved for middle-income individuals making up to $95,000 annually, or families making up to $136,000 annually.

The new development will also have 15,000 square feet of publicly accessible open space, and allow for the expansion and relocation of the Essex Street Market to a new site, which has the potential to double the number of small businesses currently operating at the market.

The massive plan was more than two years in the making and came about only after a series of tough political compromises between the city and C.B. 3, along with the active participation of Councilmembers Chin and Mendez. Some other highlights of the plan include:

• The city will reserve 15,000 square feet of Site 5 until 2023 in case a public school is needed there in the future.

• Additional affordable housing will be made available at a lot adjacent to 21 Spring St.

• Former SPURA residents who were displaced by the area’s demolition will receive priority for housing in the new development.

• If the current Essex Street Market is forced to relocate to the south side of Delancey St., its vendors will be given first opportunity for comparable square footage. Rent schedules and planned increases for existing vendors will be commensurate with their rent at the time of the move.

• Fifty percent of those hired for all new permanent jobs on the site will come from the community, specifically, low-income people in need of employment. The goal is to retain 40 percent of these hires for at least nine months.

• There will be stringent requirements to enforce retail diversity and limit or exclude big-box stores like Walmart.

At last Thursday’s City Council vote, Council Speaker Christine Quinn lauded Community Board 3 as well as local activist groups for their efforts in overcoming major differences that made redevelopment of the parcels impossible for so many years.

“This was 45 years in the making,” Quinn said, “and I want to thank the long list of community activists and organizations that worked long years on this and making it possible.”

The speaker also praised Councilmembers Chin and Mendez for their “hard work in working out a compromise between community groups and the city. They both drove a very hard bargain, and they were good, loud voices for the needs of the community,” Quinn said.

City Council Land Use Committee Chairman Leroy Comrie and Councilmember Stephen Levin also congratulated Chin and Mendez for their efforts in helping craft a compromise between community groups and the city.

Comrie noted that the two councilmembers persuaded the city to increase the number of housing units from 900 to 1,000, and to provide more affordable housing on a site on Spring St. He added that Chin also won an agreement to set aside space on SPURA for a new public school if it is needed.

The Land Use Committee chairman quipped that Chin “may be small but she’s stronger than all of us.”

Chin, who spearheaded the modification of the City Planning Commission’s original SPURA proposal, told councilmembers, “Today’s vote to approve development of the SPURA site is truly history in the making.”

She also thanked Mendez and the various local community groups for all their efforts — especially Community Board 3.

“Your hundreds of hours of hard work helped us put together a comprehensive, compromise plan,” she said. “It’s not 100 percent affordable housing on the site, but 50 percent is not bad.”

Mendez, meanwhile, said, “Thanks to Margaret’s help we did it. We kept going forward with it and never forgot the former site tenants. This will be a reality for them.” She added, “This vote means that hundreds of affordable housing units will be coming to an area of manifest need.”

There were surprisingly few local residents on hand for the historic vote, and among those residents who were seated in the gallery above the Council Chambers reactions to the vote were mixed.

A member of GOLES — which supports developing the site with only affordable housing — who asked that her name not be used expressed disappointment at the outcome.

“I think we could have done better,” she said. “I think we’ll just have to wait and see how the R.F.P. process plays out.

On a more positive note, former SPURA site tenant Tito Delgado told this newspaper, “I’m grateful for the vote and a chance to return to the place that I was evicted from.”

Also expressing enormous satisfaction with the vote was former C.B. 3 Chairperson Berg.

“It’s absolutely amazing that after 45 years we were able to put this all together and see the plan passed,” he said.

More from around NYC