Seaport City Falls Flat for LES Residents

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:02

    Concerns over luxury housing development and "disaster capitalism"

    For the first time since Mayor Bloomberg announced his grandiose idea to build a "Seaport City" on the Lower East Side, community members had a chance to raise their concerns about the plan, and many were not thrilled.

    The idea presented by the city is to construct a multi-purpose levee along the Lower East Side that would protect it from a Sandy-caliber storm. It was dubbed "Seaport City" by the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the agency responsible for the initial steps. At last week's Community Board 3 meeting, the plan was criticized not for its intent but for the possibility that it could be exploited by developers looking to make a buck on newly created real estate.

    The EDC's request for proposal calls for the consultant to "identify and evaluate different scenarios for new development on the multi-purpose levee, including ? without limitation ? low-, medium- and high-density development scenarios," leading some to fear that the final product will include a component of market-rate housing development.

    Representatives of the EDC and the mayor's office said at this stage, they don't know what might be built, if anything, on the levee. However, they do believe that a levee is the solution. The next step, they said, is a feasibility study to determine whether one will work in the East River.

    The EDC, represented by Vice President of Development Alejandro Baquero, said, "We're not even at step one, we're at step zero."

    But the statement wasn't enough to satisfy David McWater, chair of CB3's committee on land use, zoning and housing. "It's hard for me to buy that you don't have a good idea of what [Seaport City] is going to be," said McWater, who was willing to bet anyone at the meeting $1,000 that it would include market-rate housing.

    That point of view was echoed by Damaris Reyes, Executive Director of Good Old Lower East Side, a community group that supports affordable housing. Reyes is also a member of CB3's Housing Committee and a Lower East Side resident. "To me, you're taking advantage of fear in our community, and disaster, to bring more development," said Reyes. "The community wants to see the waterfront used for the benefit of this community, for recreation, for pastime, and not for housing development."

    Reyes questioned the EDC's purported desire to protect LES residents, and said that to her, the project "sounds like disaster capitalism."

    "Development that would create additional land, and additional market-rate housing in this neighborhood, would have so many secondary impacts on this community that I'm concerned about who would be really left to protect," said Reyes, who was concerned that developing on the view that many residents currently enjoy of the East River would cause property values to decrease and would "change the landscape of the community."

    "Our community knows all too well that when you spur economic development it's not for us," said Harriet Cohen, a public member of CB3's land use committee.

    Representatives of the EDC and mayor's office maintained that they're only determining whether a levee that would mitigate flood water impact is feasible. The EDC will announce who will conduct the feasibility study in the next two weeks.

    Officials declined to discuss how much the feasibility study would cost, citing ongoing negotiations, or how many consultants are interested in the project. Baquero did say that "several" are locally based but tried to tamp down talk of concrete development plans. He said city officials and the EDC are still in the very early stages of the process.

    "Right now, there's this idea of a levy that could serve different purposes. Let's see does it work? Is it feasible? That's really where we are right now," said Baquero.

    The note again fell flat with McWater, who said he feels shut out of the process and that the EDC has already made up its mind about what Seaport City will eventually be.

    "Somewhere there's somebody that's excited that you're spending a lot of money on this study," said McWater. "And it's not us."