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SEWARD PARK: WHOSE PROMISED LAND?

Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area

by Tom Robbins
Just south of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side,
where traffic headed onto and off the Williamsburg
Bridge whizzes past swarms of shoppers seeking out the
area's famed bargains, lie several vacant acres of cityowned real estate. Except for a handful of buildings that
have escaped the wrecker's ball, and two fiercely contested housing developments, most of the 14 square
blocks have remained largely unused since the late 1960s
when they were designated an urban renewal area. Since
that time the use of those acres has been fought over
almost as much as certain areas of the Middle East, and
nearly as many failed peace initiatives lie buried in the
rubble of its demolished buildings.
The latest, and perhaps the final, city attempt to
balance the competing demands of the area's Jewish
and Hispanic populations, received only partial approval by the Board of Estimate on April 24. The Jewish
community, based mainly in 4,500 cooperative apartments south of the renewal area, has sought commercial
buildings or middle income housing on the sites. The
large, housing-needy Hispanic population to the north
and west, has long urged the construction of lower
income housing units.
CITY LIMITS/May 1980

The Board's decision, to amend the plan to exclude


low income family housing from the site has left the
Hispanic community feeling "cut out" and more bitter
than before.
By a 9-2 vote, with only the Mayor's office dissenting,
the Board voted to adopt an amended proposal by Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein that called for
approval of an "international mall" along the south
side of Delancey Street, and 156 apartments for the
elderly and handicapped. The prime bone of contention, 100 units of low income family housing was
eliminated by Stein's amendment.
A third factor in the proposal, the fate of several cityowned buildings, two of which are tenanted, remains
unclear as present building plans call for their demolition.
Argument and debate over the sites has always been
heated and often laced with charges of racism. The
struggle between the two communities has spilled over
into the streets at times, and has also led to lengthy and
involved legal challenges on the tenancy of the projects
that have been built.
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The Board of Estimate meeting was no exception to


that strain, and spectators for and against the family
housing traded insults during the hearing. When Stein
left the chamber, following the adoption of his amendment, a chant of "Racist! Racist!" arose from many
spectators. Stein was quoted later as saying that to attempt to combine economic development with low income housing was "ludicrous" and that "every experience with low income housing shows it creates crime
and social problems." Stein's office later insisted that
those remarks were taken out of context, and were not
indicative of his feelings about subsidized housing for
the poor.
"We believed it was a unique opportunity to do commercial development," said Stein's Deputy Jesse Masyr,
"and we didn't think it essential or wise to place on top
of economic development a low income project." The
area north of Delancey Street, Masyr said, needs stabilization much more. "Around (Avenues) Band C there's
just a lot of rubble," he said.
While the United Jewish Council, the major group
that has contested low income housing, had opposed the
construction of the elderly as well as family apartments,
it still reacted to the Board's vote as a victory.
"The homework was taken care of," said Douglas
Balin, Executive Director of the UJC, when asked about
the lobbying effort his group had undertaken before the
vote, including reports that delegations of rabbis from
around the city visited Board members to press their
concerns about the plan.
"In our Board's eyes," said Balin, "there is nothing
wrong with saying this is our neighborhood. This is a
large Jewish community and we want to preserve it."
The plans for the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area had already been thrashed out on a local
level, with Community Board #3 voting in favor of the
plan.
The Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, which
has actively promoted the construction of low income
housing on the sites to replace the more than 1,400 low
income apartments lost to demolition when the area was
cleared, asserted at the hearing that the United Jewish
Council was attempting to make Delancey Street a demarcation line between the two communities. The city,
the group stated, had a moral obligation to provide
housing for those in need in an area where an integrated, low income neighborhood had existed.
"We took a lesson in hate," said Nestor Cortijo of
the JPC after the Board's vote. "But those who hate are
going to have to realize that they will reap hate as well."
While the thrust of Stein's amendment-eliminate the
low income units-was understood by the Board members, it was not until some days after the vote that the
specifics of the changes adopted were understood by all.
Presently the disputed site, 2B, is listed as residential
without specifications at to type.

"We're still committed to the original goals of


Seward Park Extension," said HPD Deputy Commissioner Ron Marino, "but, as it stands now, the amendment bars any low income housing on that site other
than elderly. It is too politically charged a situation to
attempt to amend the plan again. We'll have to look at
other sites for housing."
According to Balin, that is exactly what the JPC
should have been doing originally. "There are plenty of
other parts of this community board that are in more
desperate need of housing," said Balin, "but this area
has generated interest in economic development and
that is what it is best suited for." The JPC, said Balin,
"wants to see this as a turf battle. They look for symbols. They would settle for a couple of tents on Grand
Street."
Part of the argument for integrated low income housing in the urban renewal area stems from the identity of
those who originally lived there, who, according to city
figures, were more than two thirds Hispanic, black and
Asian, and one third white. Most of the buildings demolished were aging old law tenements, but some were
spacious structures with elegant facades.
One of the better buildings on the urban renewal area
still stands at 384 Grand Street, and is home to twenty
five families, eight of whom lived on the site in 1965 and
thus have vested rights to reside in whatever housing is
built, provided it is within their income range.
Joyce Burger, who lived in two other buildings in the
renewal area since 1965 before moving into 384,said she
had no interest in living in a high rise. Her three and one
half rooms, for which she pays $73 per month, are large
and airy, she says, compared to the other buildings she
has lived in. "The places they want to send me from
here," she said, "you wouldn't want to house an animal
in."
But saving 384 Grand Street, along with another
building on the site designated for senior citizen's housing, is a thorny problem, which would take some deft
maneuvering and strong commitment from the city-a
commitment city officials don't appear to have at this
point. HPD insists that maintaining the building would
mean consuming over 30 per cent of the open space, an
amenity they say is crucial to the plan. In addition, officials say, there are legal and financial difficulties involved, anyone of which might cause enough of a delay
to make HUD withdraw funding for the project.
Beni Matias, a tenant of 384 Grand Street for two
years, insisted that demolition of the buildings would be
wasteful: the other building, 195 Broome, will be
demolished, she points out, for parking, which HPD
says the project doesn't need but is mandated by HUD
to have. The rest of the area will be landscaping said
Matias. "We support the planned housing," she said,
"both the senior citizen and the family. The original
plan included the existing buildings and we think the
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CITY LIMITS/May 1980

city has managed on other urban renewal sites to provide for standing buildings and they should do it here as
well."
According to Marino, demolition of the buildings will
take place, but not for some time. At the moment no
evictions will be ordered. While the Stein amendment
provided for rehabilitation of the buildings for low income families, there are no plans in the works to do
that.
On site 2B, where the low income family initiative was
defeated, things appear to be in limbo. A firehouse on
the site that has served as a youth center for several
years may face ultimate demolition as well. The plan advanced by the Grand Street Settlement, which was the
sponsor of the housing, called for the firehouse to be
preserved.
What will ultimately be built there remains to be seen,
and may call for a new round of negotiations. But having demonstrated they have the political clout to stymie
low income housing, the United Jewish Council is not
expected to concede much. Balin of the UJC said his
organization would be in support of elderly housing on
that site as well. But Marino, noting that an additional
site has been slated for elderly housing to be sponsored
by the UJC and the Bialystoker Synagogue, said "I
don't think it makes sense to make that area the gerontology center of the U.S."
According to Ken Kimmerling, attorney for the Joint
Planning Council, the group is looking into the
possibility of litigation, challenging the Board's vote.
"We originally fought to keep the city from taking
any of the buildings around here," said Nestor Cortijo,
"then we fought their original plan to build nothing but
middle and upper income housing. Now we're still
fighting to get the housing our people need." 0

borhood leaders are asking what good it is to win impressive agreements on reinvestment from banks when
the interest rate is 15 or 16 per cent, rates that even more
affluent people have trouble affording.
They have linked the high interest rates to policies
enacted by the Fed as part of the Carter
Administration's attempt to reduce inflation.
The neighborhood participants at the meeting came
armed with two specific proposals.
The Fed should require lower reserves from banks
that are willing to lend to low and moderate income persons at 8 per cent instead of 15 per cent.
For banks that agree to lend to low and moderate
income borrowers, the Fed should lower the interest rate
it charges from 13 per cent to 6 or 7 per cent.
These demands were the first real attempt to crack
open the so-far impenetrable wall that seems to protect
the traditional ways housing is financed in this country.
Instead of subsidizing interest rates for large developers
the way programs such as 236 and 221(d)(3) were designed, these lower rates would be offered to low and
moderate income homeowners tenant cooperatives and
responsible landlords by banks with the aid of the
Federal Reserve.
In keeping with his tough-guy image as the sole
protector of the U.S. economy, Volcker refused to
agree to any of the group's demands, saying they represented activities the Fed has "traditionally not
engaged in." It was brought to his attention that 16 per
cent interest rates on mortgages were something most
people had never dealt with either.
Volcker's aides said a program of requiring lower
reserves in exchange for lower interest rates on mortgages would be illegal. This point has been disputed by
other economists with whom neighborhood leaders and
researchers have consulted. As for the idea of lowering
the rate of interest for loans to banks so they could pass
these on to consumers, one aide to Volcker remarked
that this was clearly possible legally. Then why wouldn't
Volcker do it? "It's a political decision," the aide said.
"Volcker was clearly not prepared to agree to anything
at this meeting. He did not want to understand that we
were there to pressure him to get after the financial institutions," said Richie Gallagher of the Northwest
Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, who attended
the meeting. "He kept saying that if we were looking for
subsidies that we should go knock on HUD's door. "
Neighborhood leaders are now putting together
strategies for dealing with the Fed at the local level as
well as trying to push for Congressional hearings into
the crisis of housing financing in low and moderate income neighborhoods. New York City's Coalition
Against Redlining is considering various says to
organize around this issue locally. Any reader who is interested in learning more should contact Roger Hayes,
CAR, 198 Broadway, Room 1100, N.Y. 10038. (212)
964-7200.0 Roger Hayes

VOLCKER SPURNS 8%
INTEREST RATE IDEA
Eight community leaders representing hundreds of
local organizations throughout the country met with
Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, on
May 6 to present him with ideas for reducing interest
rates in low and moderate income neighborhoods. The
lower rates would apply to mortgages, home improvement and rehabilitation loans for small homes and
multiple dwellings.
The meeting took place as the result of a demonstration at Volcker's officer on April 14 by about 700
delegates to the 9th Annual National Peoples Action
Conference.
Neighborhood groups from around the country have
felt over the past year that victories won through the
Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) were often being
nullified because of soaring interest rates. Redlining by
price has begun to replace redlining by location. NeighCITY LIMITS/May 1980

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