Last night, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) took a giant step forward after 44 years of contentious debate. Community Board 3’s Land Use, Zoning, Public and Private Housing Committee approved guidelines for development of the city-owned land at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.
SPURA’s use of the term “urban renewal” reveals just how long the debate has been going on, a relic from the Moses era when the master planner evicted poor residents from tenements to build affordable housing and an unrealized downtown expressway. Some housing did get built, but much of the unused land became parking lots.
“While there were, at times, deep and principled disagreements among stakeholders, I believe that ultimately this process brought our community together,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Sliver said in a statement. “The final guidelines that 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.”
The guidelines call for 800 to 1000 housing units to rise on the land and to be divided 50-50: 50 percent market rate and the remaining percentage to go to below and middle income families. The breakdown of units for the low to middle income is 10 percent middle income, 10 percent moderate, 20 percent low and 10 percent low income seniors. That the plan incorporates market solutions wasn’t lost on the crowd gathered at the Henry Street Settlement. The area, once a hotbed of Socialism, still retains some of that rallying spirit. During public comments, several speakers requested that document demand 100 percent affordable housing.
“The work of Sidney Hillman and others has been destroyed and prostituted,” longtime resident Michael Gottleib told the committee, evoking the name of the area’s famed labor leader.
One point did unite much of the crowd; several said that the Essex Market should be preserved. For some, the city-owned and subsidized market represents an optimistic scenario for future development. Describing the food hall, speaker Carol Anastasio called it “a mix of the old and the wave of the future.”
Emotions continued to run high while the committee listened. Residents displaced in 1960s stood alongside young residents forced out by the high rent. One young woman complained the she and a childhood friend can no longer afford to stay, even though she maintains a moderate income.
“I help people at a not for profit and I can’t even help myself,” she said. “Can’t I come back to my own ‘hood? Where I was raised? Where I had my first date?”
The full board is expected to approve the guidelines tonight. From there, several civic hurdles must be cleared before ground is broken.