The Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, Forty-five Years Later:
Affordable to Whom?
By Eugene Chen
From the 1950s through the 1960s, two thousand families with low incomes were displaced from their homes when the City of New York embarked on an urban renewal plan targeting the area east along Delancey Street at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, otherwise known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA).1 Forty-five years later, the “Seward Park Slum Clearance Project” left 165 million square feet of parking lot space, devoid of any signs of human occupation aside from the coming and going of vehicles. After a contentious community debate, the City Council passed a resolution (the “Resolution”) on October 11, 2012, for a mixed-use plan to develop SPURA.2 Proposals were due to the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) on May 6, 2013, and on September 18, 2013, Mayor Bloomberg announced that Delancey Street Associates LLC, a joint venture composed of L+M Development Partners, BFC Partners, and Taconic Investment Partners, had been selected to develop the site.3 The plan calls for 60/40 residential and commercial development, with 500 units of permanently affordable housing, out of the 1000 units of housing being built.4 In all likelihood, the developer chosen to develop SPURA will apply for the 421-a tax exemption, an incentive intended to encourage the construction of market-rate and affordable housing in New York City (the “City”).
The decision by the City to develop SPURA forty-five years later galvanized community groups and residents in Manhattan Community Board 3 (“CB3”), a neighborhood historically made up of low-income immigrants, who wanted to ensure that the project would benefit the community and not just enrich private developers.5 Though community boards did not exist6 when the City razed the area it deemed a “slum” in the 1960s, it was at community board meetings and hearings that the community voiced demands for more affordable housing, the construction of more schools in a burdened school district, prevailing wage jobs, and a ban on big-box stores in the plan for SPURA. This paper will examine the meaning of “affordability,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the concept of Area Median Income, the alternative definition of affordability known as Local Median Income, and the role of the 421-a Real Property Tax Exemption in the creation of affordable housing.