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Affordable Housing and Essex Street Market Top SPURA Concerns

By Serena Solomon | July 12, 2012 11:59am
An artists impression of Seward Park Urban Renewal Area that has been proposed for the Lower East Side.
An artists impression of Seward Park Urban Renewal Area that has been proposed for the Lower East Side.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

DOWNTOWN — Opponents and supporters of a plan to develop numerous blocks along Delancey Street near the Williamsburg Bridge in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) squared off at the first public hearing hosted by the City Planning Commission on Wednesday. 

At a meeting that lasted about six hours, representatives from government agencies, including the Mayors Office, spoke in favor of the project to develop 1.65 million square feet of underused lots that have remained virtually vacant for more than 45 years.

Jeff Mandel, a policy adviser for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said the mayor supported the plan that would add millions of square foot of office, retail and community space over nine individual sites covering four full city blocks.

"This will transform the site that has served as a parking lot for almost 50 years," said Mandel.

But many neighborhood residents and business owners used the first public meeting to voice long-held concerns over affordable housing, which is supposed to make up 50 per cent of the development, and the likely move of the beloved Essex Market into the new development.

Julie Stein, a senior project manager with the city's Economic Development Corporation, which developed the SPURA plan, presented to the commission possible options for the market, which currently operates on a block on the north side of Declancey Street.

The market will likely move to the south side of Delancey Street into the SPURA development, and existing tenants will be charged a comparable amount of rent if they move, Stein said. The EDC is currently surveying Essex Street Market business owners to determine what they want and what their moving costs may be.

She said the market would remain publicly owned, with the possibility it could expand, because the news space offfers the possibility of more room for existing tenants and new vendors.

Some community groups, such as the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, asked the commission to reject the plan unless 100 percent affordable housing is guaranteed.

"This land use should give more opportunity for more affordable housing," said coalition member Xiu Hua Xu, 63, through a translator. She said she was priced out of housing in Chinatown and now rents a bedroom with her daughter and grandson in an apartment with other families.

"Because of the living space, all of my family have to wait to use the bathroom and kitchen," Xu said.

Illustrating the community’s need for more affordable housing, the coalition cited a report by the Furman Center that put almost 50 percent of Chinatown and Lower East Side households with an income of less than $38,000 a year.

The SPURA plan, which is currently undergoing the city's uniform land use review procedure (ULURP), was approved by Community Board 3 in May. However, some board members argued for the need to secure a school in the development, prohibit a big-box store from moving in, and the guarantee of job creation for local residents. 

Board 3's newly minted chairwoman, Gigi Li, largely voiced her support for the plan.

"There was a diversity of stakeholders involved in the process," she said, outlining the numerous residents, business owners, government agencies and community organization who provided input on the plan.

She also reminded the commission that the board's request for permanent affordable housing had been approved for half the 900 units in the proposed development. This housing will be divided up into units for low-, moderate- and middle-income families, as well as senior citizens.

The fate of Essex Street Market, which is housed on one of the blocks slated for development, was also raised continuously throughout the hearing.

Other skeptics of the plan, such as Harriet Cohen, a volunteer at the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition, pushed the commission to consider space for a school in the development. She requested "further consideration for a new school that is for our community's children."

The commission now has a 60-day period to review the plan before approving, modifying or voting it down. It will then go before the City Council for a vote.