Seven acres at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan have the distinction of being the largest undeveloped plot of city-owned land below 96th Street. Mayors from Koch to Giuliani have tried and failed to set construction in motion on the property, a parking lot for 43 years, but recent developments indicate the Bloomberg administration may be the one to finally see a ground breaking. The Seward Park Area, or SPURA, as it has been dubbed, was created in 1967 by Robert Moses, who razed a total of 14 blocks of tenements to make way for the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. The Seward Park Cooperative housing projects, however, were all Moses was able to complete on this site, south of Delancey Street in the Lower East Side, at the waning of his career.
Under the guidance of facilitator John Shapiro, Community Board 3 released a draft of guidelines for SPURA on November 16, 2010, with mixed-use stipulations and 40-60 percent of the ensuing 1,000 housing units to be sold at market-rate values. CB3 Chairman Dominic Pisciotta later told The New York Times these guidelines were “the furthest it’s ever come.” Yet within the community, obstacles to consensus remain, from the number of residential units reserved for low- and moderate-income tenants to the price of the land itself, which at $60 million some say is far too low.
New York State assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, first elected to the downtown 64th district in 1974, has served through multiple plans for SPURA, including a 2006 mixed-use design by Arquitectonica, but has yet to weigh in on the latest. In a statement released last month, the speaker said, “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.”
On January 24, CB3’s Land Use Committee voted in favor of the proposed planning guidelines. The breakdown shifted slightly in favor of affordable housing, now at 50 percent including 20 percent dedicated to low income and another ten for low income, senior. The audience was packed, among them a few who had originally been displaced by Moses in the 1960s and would like to be guaranteed housing opportunities to return.
The full board was scheduled to vote on the following day as AN went to press. It seemed likely that approval would result. In a statement, Silver praised the progress being made, writing that “the guidelines which were approved by the committee tonight strike an appropriate balance between the needs and concerns of all stakeholders and will result in a development that will ensure our neighborhood continues to thrive.”
Once approved, the guidelines will be submitted to various city agencies for review, a process which could take up to 2 years. Even at that glacial pace, Mayor Bloomberg could wield the golden shovel at SPURA yet.