Chinatown coalition slams widely praised SPURA plan

A recent rendering of SPURA produced by the city Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Rendering courtesy of the City of New York

BY HELAINA HOVITZ  |  Barely 24 hours after Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced the historic passage of the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project earlier this month, a Chinatown-based group held a press conference to contest the plan for not containing all-affordable housing.

The site known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) has been the subject of a citywide debate for over four decades, ever since the original buildings at the site were knocked down in 1967. The roughly 1.65-million-square-foot area consists of nine parcels of land adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge and is bordered by Delancey Street on the north, Grand Street on the south, Essex Street on the west and Clinton Street on the east. The approved plan calls for 1,000 housing units, 50 percent of which are supposed to be permanently affordable for low-, moderate- and middle-income households (including seniors), and a public school. Guidelines for the plan were crafted over the past four years during monthly meetings led by Community Board 3, in coordination with a team of representatives from the Bloomberg administration. The latest plan was unanimously approved by the City Council on Thurs., Oct. 11.

According to the plan, which was also endorsed by Community Board 3, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, 30 percent of the proposed apartments will be set aside for low-income individuals who make up to $34,000 annually and families with an annual income of up to $49,000. Ten percent of the remaining units will be reserved for moderate-income individuals making up to $75,000 annually and families making up to $107,000, and another 10 percent of units will be designated for middle-income individuals making up to $95,000 and families making up to $136,000 annually.

One of the reasons the SPURA plan took four years to come to fruition is because of all the extended outreach, according to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office, who praised its passage in a written statement.

“This is a historic day for our Lower East Side community,” said Silver. “After a thorough, open and fair process, a true consensus was reached for the future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.”

Council Member Margaret Chin, a major player in crafting the latest version of the plan, said she was proud that this project is one of the first the city allowed robust feedback on. “My goal was to make sure the Lower East Side community has a role before and after this project is put out to bid by the city,” she said. “As per my modifications, a community task force will [be set up to] help define the goals of the Request for Proposal, provide feedback on proposals submitted by developers and consult with the city on the final selection.”

But the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side is calling foul on the approved plan. The coalition rallied together on Fri., Oct. 12, to express disdain for Chin, their City Council representative, who they claim promised them 100 percent affordable housing at SPURA. Members of the coalition include the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, the Chinatown Small Business Alliance, Project REACH, Action by the Lower East Side and Chatham Green, among others.

“The majority of this community makes under $40,000, and families with that annual income can’t afford apartments at market rates,” said Wendy Cheung, a representative for the coalition.

The coalition is going so far as to accuse Chin of lying to her constituents just to get their votes when she initially pledged to secure 100 percent low- and moderate-income housing at SPURA back in 2009. According to the coalition, Chin vowed to find ways to increase the number of affordable units up until two weeks before the City Council elections.

The City Council did, in fact, successfully secure 100 more affordable housing units than were initially proposed for the development — making the current count 500 units in all, with the breakdown of 50 percent market-rate and 50 percent affordable.

In a September 2009 Downtown Express news report, Chin insisted that the future housing at SPURA should comprise 100 percent moderate- and low-income units. Asked in 2009 if she would accept market-rate housing at the site, she said: “That’s down the line, but we got to start with the premise that this is the kind of housing we need.”

Coalition member Fung Yee Chen of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association asserted that Chin’s promises were never met and insisted that Chin is pushing for luxury apartments. “It’s mostly housing for the rich,” she said of the current plan.

“Instead of representing this community, she basically thanked Bloomberg for giving our community away and is following in his footsteps,” said Louise Velez, a neighborhood resident who makes $15,000 a year. “She just ignored 8,000 of our petitions.”

Velez was referring to a petition signed by 8,000 local residents calling for 100 percent affordable and low-income housing at the site; however, Kelly Magee, Chin’s director of communications, accused the coalition of using “shady tactics” to collect signatures.

“To get people to sign the petition, they asked people, ‘Do you like low-income housing? Do you want a cheap apartment?’ and were telling people in Chinese that if they signed, they’d get an apartment,” said Magee.

The English version of the petition, also written in Chinese and Spanish, states that many families and small businesses have recently been driven out by soaring rents, and asks people to sign it in order to “stop luxury developers from taking over.”

Chin issued a press release on Fri., Oct. 12 calling the coalition’s statements outright lies and claiming that the passage of SPURA is a “huge victory” in the history of the area.

The coalition doesn’t represent Chinatown as it says it does, according to Chin. “They are not even from this community,” she said. “I have spent my entire life in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and I have dedicated my life to fighting for resources for this community.”

Chin continued, “The coalition has grossly misrepresented the facts when it comes to SPURA, and they should apologize to our community for their actions.”

And, according to Magee, were SPURA to have 100 percent low-income housing, city workers such as firemen and teachers, who make about $50,000 a year, wouldn’t be eligible to live there.

“These people and their families deserve a chance to live on the Lower East Side, too,” said the spokesperson. “We want a diverse and integrated community, not a large sloth of low-income housing, which nobody in this community wants. We’ve had people come into our offices and say, ‘Please don’t make this giant swab of public housing in our backyard.’”

Wing Lam, executive director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, countered this by saying, “Firemen and others have plenty of places to go.”

During the Request for Proposal (R.F.P.) process, preference will be given to prospective developers who propose to build multiple types of low-income housing. The R.F.P. is expected to be released early next year.

Coalition members spoke of plans to create a task force to seek out proposals from developers interested in building 100 percent low-income housing at SPURA. They claim that a developer by the name of Ben Wong, owner of the Wok ’n Roll food chain, has already come forward with a proposal to build 100 percent affordable housing at the site.

According to coalition representative JoAnn Lum, Wong has lined up an architect from the Pratt Institute to work with him on these plans, and has said that he would use his relationships with certain banks and donors to secure contributions for the project.

Wong wasn’t available for comment.

“He has done real estate developing before and has several hotels, including a Comfort Inn on the corner of Chrystie Street and a Best Western on Grand Street,” she said. “Additionally, he’s proposing a bus depot for the 50 different buses that take people from Chinatown to various other states in order to consolidate and generate more jobs and activity.”

Community Board 3 chair Gigi Li said that while the SPURA discussion has been ongoing for nearly four years, members of the coalition only began showing up to a couple of C.B. 3 meetings prior to the Oct. 11 vote, and never showed them any sort of proposal.

“The plan we’ve put forward is the best deal we were able to get,” she said. “One hundred percent [affordable housing] just isn’t practical, especially in this economy. There are fiscal realities that really have to be looked at with a development of this magnitude.”

“The coalition hasn’t demonstrated that their plan is economically feasible,” she continued, “but the R.F.P. is an open bidding process running until sometime in 2013. It’s still a possibility if they want to pursue it.”

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