After 40 Years, Peace in LES’s Seward Park; Middle East Is Next


The first 2011 Nobel Peace Prize nomination goes to the Lower East Siders who hammered out Monday night’s near-unanimous community board vote approving new housing for those five acres of weed-strewn parking lots sitting forlornly behind chain-link fences these past 40 years along Delancey Street.

The deal okayed by Community Board 3 calls for 1,000 units of housing, half of it targeted to middle and low-income families, plus new non-Wal-Mart-style retail and open space.

For those wondering what’s the big deal, or what took so long, consider these facts:

This is the largest clear parcel of land in Manhattan, where unfettered real estate is the single most precious local resource.

And this: Just three years ago, a public meeting to consider a similar plan to resolve the decades-old problem dissolved into hostile hoots and jeers.

The battle over what to do with this remnant of what’s known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area has raged since 1967 when the land was first cleared to make way for a failed Robert Moses pipe dream called the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

The fight over what should go there pitted the largely white residents of the Grand Street co-ops vs. mostly Latino low-income residents displaced from the site, and their Loisaida allies who insisted that the city live up to its promise to provide affordable housing.

It was a fight in which everyone who prefers living indoors to the streets had a stake.

In 1980, then-Manhattan Borough president Andrew Stein shot down an effort to break the log-jam, declaring that low-income housing automatically spells crime. As City Limits magazine noted back then, there were more broken peace treaties buried in Seward Park’s rubble than in the Middle East.

A big part of the stall was due to Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, a Grand Street regular, who preferred the status-quo (parking lots) to a questionable future (new housing brings new voters, which could mean new challengers!).

But on Monday night the peace was finally won. It was due to long, painstaking work by a bevy of heroes, including community board leaders David McWater and Dominic Piciotta, Val Orselli of Cooper Square Mutual Housing, Harriet Cohen of Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition, Michael Zisser of University Settlement House, Linda Jones, and the peacemakers from Grand Street: Joel Kaplan of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, and former Silver staffer Jessica Loesser, who earned big cred as a possible successor to her former boss.

In a preview of Obama’s state of the union call for bipartisan hands-across-the-aisle, UJC stalwart Joel Kaplan sat next to former foe, Lisa Kaplan, chief of staff to councilwoman Rosie Mendez and a veteran advocate for a fair deal for low-income residents on the site. Tears were shed, as they well might be.

Silver instantly offered his own cheers: “While there were, at times, deep and principled disagreements among stakeholders, I believe that ultimately this process brought our community together. The final guidelines that were approved by the committee tonight strike an appropriate balance between the needs and concerns of all stakeholders and will result in a development that will ensure our neighborhood continues to thrive. ..There is no problem too great that we can’t solve together as one community.”

There’s no comment yet from Andrew Stein, but he’s otherwise occupied, dealing with a possible year-long stretch in the pen thanks to his guilty plea to a federal tax evasion rap in December.