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Advocates Inch Closer to Development Proposal for Seward Park's Empty Lots

By Patrick Hedlund | December 14, 2010 5:10pm
SPURA — which includes the lots bounded by Essex, Delancey, Willett and Grand streets — has remained undeveloped for more than four decades.
SPURA — which includes the lots bounded by Essex, Delancey, Willett and Grand streets — has remained undeveloped for more than four decades.
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New York City Economic Development Corporation

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

LOWER EAST SIDE — Local residents moved closer to finalizing a community-driven plan for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) Monday that could end more than four decades of inaction at the sprawling development site near the Williamsburg Bridge.

Community Board 3 discussed a draft proposal it unveiled last month for future development at the site, which is located on five lots just south of Delancey Street that have remained vacant except for parking lots.

Affordable housing advocates — some of whom had their own families evicted from the property in the 1960s under a city plan to raze tenements and redevelop the land — criticized the board's plan for not including enough low-income housing for the community.

Local residents packed a Community Board 3 meeting Monday to discuss a draft proposal for future development at the SPURA site.
Local residents packed a Community Board 3 meeting Monday to discuss a draft proposal for future development at the SPURA site.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Hedlund

"Whatever goes up there must include what was," David Nieves, a former SPURA site tenant who said some 2,000 households were displaced more than 40 years ago, told the packed auditorium.

The board's current proposal suggested reserving 40 to 60 percent of the site's residential units for market-rate development, with at least 20 percent of the units reserved for low-income tenants.

The plan also stipulated that at least 10 percent and preferably 30 percent of all units be reserved for moderate and middle-income residents, and that 10 percent of the units be set aside for seniors.

However, many said they would not support a proposal that did not push for the maximum amount of affordable units.

"SPURA is most people's last hope to remain on the Lower East Side," said Adrienne Chevrestt, a longtime resident of the Masaryk Towers complex located near the site.

"We're willing to compromise alright, but not to betray our community," she added. "It's too close now to give up."

Some locals opined that any development plan for the dilapidated property would be better than what's currently at the site — a collection of parking lots that make the area unattractive and unwelcoming, especially after dark.

Brett Leitner, a resident of the Seward Park Co-op who recently formed a group advocating for compromise on the SPURA site, said the board's three-year process in developing a draft proposal marked a "milestone in the long, sad history" of the property.

"Now is the time for compromise without ceding your principles," he said, acknowledging that no plan would ultimately satisfy everyone. "Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good."

Others echoed Leitner's call for cooperation, noting that the site would remain a "geographical dead zone" without swift action.

Still, many said allowing a plan with room for so much market-rate housing would simply follow the trend of upscale development on the Lower East Side.

Rob Hollander, a local activist and member of the Lower East Side History Project, said the board needed to "raise the bar as high as possible" to get the maximum amount of affordable housing, given ever-rising real estate prices in the area.

Thirty-five year Lower East Side resident Tunisia Riley, who also advocated for more affordable housing, noted the community was standing at a crossroads with SPURA regarding the future of the neighborhood.

"Will it be the Lower East Side," she said, "or will it be the Upper East Side?"

Harvey Epstein, a member of Community Board 3's land use committee, said the draft proposal would likely change dramatically based on the public's input.

"We're narrowing what the fight's about, narrowing the disagreements, which is good," he said.

The committee wants to push hard to include a school in any future development at the site, but for now the most pressing questions revolve around housing.

 "The message is that people care about it and are engaged in it," he said. "We are pretty close."

The board will discuss the proposal again at next month's committee meeting.