For more than four decades, Lower East Siders have been fighting to redevelop the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, more commonly known by the (fittingly) ominous acronym SPURA. Just this year a breakthrough came, but another fight has ensued over the specifics of the plan. A grassroots citizen coalition wants the project devoted entirely to affordable housing, contrary to the city’s more market-driven mixed-income approach.
Could their salvation come in the form of the founder of the ubiquitous Chinese fast food chain Wok & Roll, an institution more at home in the food courts and airports of middle America than the streets of downtown?
Yesterday, inside 345 Grand Street, the now sometimes home of The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, Ben Wong was looking down at his hands. The coalition has just put its hopes behind him, in a tri-lingual press conference and grassroots campaign, to steward and develop an idea they hope will save their neighborhood.
It is a simple idea. Keep all the units of the city’s proposed SPURA redevelopment as fixed low-income housing. It is a demand that local City Councilwoman Margaret Chin has said is almost impossible to achieve and Harriet Cohen chair of the volunteer group Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition (SPARC) calls economically unfeasible. But Mr. Wong does not believe so and neither do the array of men and woman behind him holding signs in Cantonese, Spanish and English. They know they can make this work. Or so they insist.
Call it the Wong plan.
As a foil to the cities own faceless moneyed developers—who have yet to be selected, pending the ongoing rezoning of the area—Mr. Wong seems like the right pick. A Hong Kong immigrant educated in America, Mr. Wong has made a sizable amount of money as owner of the Wok & Roll food chain. He has also developed in the neighborhood, having built a Best Western and Comfort Inn hotels in Chinatown. They are, he says, “middle class, affordable, and also union.”
His sudden presence in the coalition’s plan (yesterday was his first official meeting as project head) is a very pointed answer to the demand put forth by Margaret Chin’s communications director, Kelly Magee, that, “You have to consider reality. You have to strategize. If you’re out there finding a developer who wants to [build 100% low-income, public housing], please let us know!”
It would have seemed an impossible demand to fill just a few days ago. Building entirely low income housing is an almost impossible proposition, especially in New York where the sheer cost of construction and building maintenance has forced the mixed income model as an unavoidable economic compromise to even the most high-minded housing developments. The plan will cost after all, “millions and millions,” as Mr. Wong put it, and he himself admits that he has “just started the beginning” of development planning and doesn’t have the whole strategy yet. He is, “still learning how we could do this.”
Currently, the city’s plan calls for transforming four parking lots on seven derelict acres south of Delancy Street into a 1.65 million-square-foot mixed use development. There will be a hotel, stores and some 900 units of housing. Only 50 percent of the units would be set aside as affordable housing.
So far, the Wong plan calls for the building of a “Grand Central-like” bus station for the multitude of Chinatown bus companies, thus encouraging local pedestrian traffic to the area. Students from Pratt Institute have already committed to the project, and the University of Hong Kong, where Mr. Wong’s brother-in-law is also a professor. Both will, we are assured, offer “free advice and a good design.” The financing of all this will come from Mr. Wong’s numerous financial contacts within HSBC, Chase Bank and the Shanghai Commercial Bank, he said.
Otherwise, no specifics as to what the project might contain or look like were provided at this time.
But it’s still, in The Coalition’s eyes, early days. The city has yet to release it’s Request For Proposal (RFP) for the site, which is slated to happen at the end of this year and it’s after that that they will respond with their fully laid out plan. In the meantime it’s enough for The coalition just to speak the idea’s name, a housing development that will really be, “for the people.” Well at least the people falling into the low income bracket of city housing, which means every household making under $40,000 a year, with a fixed rent rate of around $1000 a month.
Even if the organizers cannot realize their goal of 100 percent affordable housing on the site, they are equally concerned about whether the 50 percent affordability the city has pledged is even “affordable” by common understanding. As it is planned now, SUPRA will divide the 50 percent of permanent affordable housing into four divisions of senior, low, moderate and middle-income housing. The low-income housing receives 20% of this division. The moderate- and middle income divisions both get 10 percent slices of the 900 apartments, which are reserved for families with income $100,000 a year and $130,000 a year, respectively. To the coalition’s mind, that is hardly affordable at all. Then again, try and find an apartment on the Lower East Side on that kind of salary these days. The remaining 10 percent is for seniors.
As Howard Brandstein, executive director of the Sixth Street Community Center, points out, “all of private housing is market [rate] in this area. So anybody who says that the neighborhood needs mixed income housing on that site fails to acknowledge the reality that there’s no mixed income housing on any of the private land, which is the lion share of the housing and land in this community.”
“You need to be practically rich to move into this neighborhood,” he added.