Spurning SPURA

Spurning SPURA

Forty-five years ago, when the lots on the south side of Delancey Street in the Lower East Side (LES) of Manhattan were first cleared for “urban renewal,” the prevailing planning theory called for “towers-in-the-park.” Indeed, that was what was installed slightly south and east of the site: one of the many bastardizations of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris. To the north and west, the landscape of low-rise walk-up tenements largely remained.

In between them is a hole, the black hole of the Lower East Side. If you arrive by the Williamsburg Bridge or emerge from the Delancey Street subway station, look south and you’ll see entire vacant blocks occupied mostly by parked off-duty delivery trucks.

This site, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) has a long and contentious history. And finally a plan for its redevelopment is near approval. Community Board 3 and the City Planning Commission both recently gave the go-ahead.

Community groups and elected officials fought hard for a primary need of the neighborhood: affordable housing. Reaching a successful accord on that, though, seems to have distracted attention from the two disastrous backbones of the plan, both of which rely on old school ideas of urban renewal and zoning. Even more frustrating, newer enlightened policies are being promoted by the city’s planning department, while the outdated and discredited ones are still retained by another city organization which happens to be SPURA’s owner, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC).

The EDC policy derives from the continued presumption of the primacy of cars. A basic tenet of what’s known as transit-oriented development involves restricting the amount of parking in order to both discourage driving and congestion, and to free up funds and land for other, more valued uses.

But the EDC insists on pursuing the opposite track: requesting an exemption to provide additional parking spaces beyond what the current—yet to be updated—zoning allows. With the confluence of mass transit and existing density around the site, there is no justification for this outdated approach. (Please recall this is from the agency that brought us the white elephant of a parking structure sitting empty at the new Yankee Stadium.) People do not come to the LES by car to shop. Nor should we want them to. Delancey is already one of the most dangerous and difficult streets to cross in the city. While the city is in the midst of some safety improvements following a rash of fatal accidents, adding parking and traffic will just worsen the situation.

There’s an even more significant flaw in the EDC’s master plan. Though it’s informed enough, thankfully, to avoid repeating the street life-draining nearby towers, it doesn’t really get that it’s not just a matter of building to the street line.

In the 1970s and 80s, the low-rise sections of the LES might have been mistaken for some of the worst areas of the South Bronx, replete with trash-filled vacant lots and burned out shells of six-story walk-ups. In the following 20 to 30 years, the neighborhood picked up dramatically, coat-tailing on the bubble economy.

Unlike some other Manhattan neighborhoods, the Lower East Side managed its mini-boom fairly gracefully, at least at first. Abandoned walk-ups that no longer had stairs to walk up were gutted and repopulated. Some of the vacant lots were “infilled” with new buildings similar in height to the adjacent survivors.

Yes, gentrification took place, but there was a bit of a difference here from the typical pattern. Because of a combination of tenant protection rules and the availability of vacant space, the gentrifiers (myself included) often ended up meshing into the existing fabric, which, in turn, was strengthened with newly infused economic vitality. It wasn’t a perfect evolution, to be sure. But the LES became a rare example of change without upheaval and, aside from the inevitable issue of rising rents, few questioned whether it was an improvement over the previous decades.

Things started to change in the mid-2000s. High-rises began to appear. Not on the city-owned SPURA parcels, but on nearby privately-owned property where developers had bought up the air rights from the surrounding low-rise buildings, and then stacked the accumulated floor area into heights that were far, far above the existing walk-ups. Several of the new towers were hotels, which frequently hosted raucous—often open-air rooftop—parties.

One could actually make an argument, unpopular as it might sound, that these towers are not the worst possible form of development for the LES. Concentrating the allowed construction into these small parcels has had the unintended side effect of preserving the majority of the adjacent older, smaller buildings. Since they have sold their air rights, there is little incentive to tear them down to rebuild—the new buildings could not be any larger than the existing ones. In an odd way, the result is an urbanized version of the tower-in-the-park, except that the “park” is the existing fabric of the neighborhood.

The EDC—which in other undertakings is very supportive of local business development—is insisting on the inclusion of big-box space in SPURA, claiming they are required in order to “anchor” the shopping district. Never mind that the LES is a community, not merely a shopping district. The term anchor store comes from the world of shopping malls. But that approach doesn’t apply in an urban situation where the customers are already there and therefore don’t have to make the decision to travel a longer distance.

Increasing density in built areas is practically a given in planning circles. For a number of years planners and policy makers have emphasized smart growth, new urbanism, and now transit-oriented development. In general this logic is accepted as good policy. However, density is a positive factor only up to a point. Once a city or a neighborhood has achieved a density sufficient to support local businesses and mass transit, adding more to it does not bring additional benefits. It’s the backside of the diminishing returns curve where, really, the only ones who gain are property owners who can sell out, the developers who come in, and city governments that stand to reel in more taxes.

There is a subtler aspect to density and it is a major determinant of the quality of a community. It’s what urban theorist Richard Florida and others have started calling “Jacobs density,” named after Jane Jacobs, and what has also variously been called the “Popsicle test,” the “twenty-minute neighborhood,” and the “pub shed.” The counterpoint to Jacobs density is “crude density,” where the mere presence of tall, densely-packed buildings does not automatically create vitality or spur creativity and innovation. New Urbanist and architect Steve Mouzon refers to “walk appeal,” arguing that neighborhood quality is defined not just by how close services and amenities are, but by the appeal of the walk to get to and between them: Are you walking through a parking lot or an inactive street or sidewalk versus a streetscape full of things to see and do?

The LES is decidedly past that point of diminishing returns. Our sidewalks, streets, subway stops, and buses are not wanting for more people. Stores, for the most part, do not lack customers. Like virtually all of Manhattan and many parts of the outer boroughs, the LES has all the density and more that’s needed for a vital urban neighborhood.

Except, that is, in the blocks comprising SPURA. Mending the fabric of the LES by filling that half-century hole is wholly desirable. What’s not desirable is turning it into another version of Broadway on the Upper West Side or into a generic “modern” street you might find in any number of other cities.

But that’s what the plans for SPURA endorse. Looking at the renderings, which admittedly are not specific architectural proposals, you see block-long masses that could be dropped in anywhere. And that’s precisely what the LES does not need.

You won’t find many chain stores in the LES. Few bank branches have opened. There’s a refreshing paucity of Starbucks and Duane Reades. Those are about the largest stores here, with the exception of Whole Foods, which occupies the entire ground floor of a post-millennial complex not unlike the ones envisioned for SPURA.

The wonderful thing about an urban street is the activity. That’s understood and accepted by all, it seems, except developers. There’s a vibrancy in seeing the unexpected or bumping into your neighbors. But the level of street life outside a long row of Bed, Bath & Beyond or Home Depot windows is nothing like what occurs where you have a different storefront entrance every 20 feet or so, where the owner hangs out and knows what’s going on in the neighborhood. The atmosphere in our tiny local pharmacy—where they know us and come out from behind the register to greet our dog—doesn’t compare to the antiseptic and Muzak’ed Rite Aid a few blocks away.

Some will say that discount retailers provide a service: more goods at lower prices. But that’s often an illusion, particularly when the big box forces locally owned stores out of business, causing the neighborhood to lose not just flavor but jobs and income as well. Never mind what happens when the discount chain’s distant office decides that the branch isn’t making quite enough profit and closes it, leaving a desolate stretch of unoccupied street, now with no shopping alternatives. Urban blocks can withstand and absorb a closed storefront or two when there are ten others still open. When a block-long store shutters, so does the life of the street.

Cities thrive on that life, or fail without it. Neighborhoods thrive on their individual character, not on imposed generic developments with mega stores.

Community Board 3’s resolution approving the SPURA plan understands this. In their “Conditions of Approval,” in addition to sections regarding affordable housing, the beloved Essex Street Market and other neighborhood needs, they strongly oppose big box stores. And their appended guidelines specifically restrict the location and size of “mid-box” stores and promote local service and convenience stores on the narrower streets.

But these are only guidelines and the EDC proposal, the one recently approved by the planning commission, does not appear to embrace them. Their vision for filling the LES’ black hole, in its bland suggested form and massing, and with its anti-urban emphasis on parking, has nothing to do with the nieghborhood. It defies current precepts of urban design and place-making.

The next step in the approval process is the City Council, where the plan first goes through a committee and may emerge for a vote in November. This means it’s not too late to recognize the shortcomings of the proposal, while retaining the hard-won agreements on affordable housing. It’s not too late to make something that doesn’t merely fill a hole, but builds upon and strengthens the character of the LES.