Rock the Vote

An air rights vote divides a Lower East Side community

Development East News Urbanism
An air rights vote divides a Lower East Side community. View from the southeast looking towards the air rights scheme, Seward Park complex in back. (Courtesy Ascend/Optimum Group)
An air rights vote divides a Lower East Side community. View from the southeast looking towards the air rights scheme, Seward Park complex in back. (Courtesy Ascend/Optimum Group)

Tuesday night, the residents of the Seward Park Co-op on Manhattan’s Lower East Side went to vote on whether to sell the four-building complex’s air rights to developers Ascend Group/Optimum Group. If the measure had passed, Seward Park would have received $54 million ($39 million after taxes) and four months of maintenance for its residents; in return, Ascend would have used this upzoning to build a pair of 22- and 33-story residential buildings to the co-op’s south. According to community members present that night, the referendum, which required approval by two-thirds of the residents, failed to pass on Tuesday. The final vote was 690 for, 537 against.

Residents had become increasingly divided over the potential sale, and many issued public op-eds both for and against the sale as the buildup to the vote grew more intense.

View from the southwest looking towards the air rights scheme, Seward Park complex in back. (Courtesy Ascend/Optimum Group)

If the vote had passed, Seward Park would have been able to pay down $20 million in mounting mortgage costs, replace its 24 ailing elevators, and repair the complex’s crumbling brick facades. Opponents argued that the money isn’t worth the irreparable harm that Ascend will be doing to the neighborhood. From the massings released, the towers, if built with Seward Park’s air rights, would potentially block views from southern-facing co-op units. “No”-aligned residents are also concerned about the impact that building market-rate housing would have on raising the cost of living in the neighborhood.

Ascend is looking to build on either side of the landmarked Bialystoker nursing home on East Broadway, which would become a lobby for the towers. With the air rights, a 242-foot-tall tower would rise on Bialystoker’s west side, and a 343-foot-tower would join it the eastern lot and cantilever over the ramp to Seward Park’s underground garage. In this scheme, the development would total approximately 270,000 square feet and contain 210 units across the three buildings.

View from the southeast looking towards the as-of-right scheme, Seward Park complex in back. (Courtesy Ascend/Optimum Group)

Of course, Ascend will build on the lots even as residents chose to vote no. The developers will still renovate Bialystoker according to their as-of-right scheme and would put up a 239-foot-tall, 20-story tower on the western lot and a 186-foot-tall, 17-story building on the eastern section. This plan would see the creation of a 115,000-square-foot, 140-unit development.

According to the developer’s website, “Should the shareholders decide not to sell the air rights, two things will follow. First, Ascend/Optimum will build on both its lots using its existing development rights. Demolition has already begun to prepare for this scenario. Second, the Coop will have lost its only opportunity to sell some of its air rights. Ascend/Optimum is the only property owner adjacent to the Seward Park Coop that can purchase these air rights.”

Rendering of the entrance to Seward Park’s underground garage, air rights plan on left, as-of-right plan on right. (Courtesy Ascend/Optimum Group)

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