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Political Cronyism That Delayed SPURA For So Long Exposed

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The Times has a long, carefully reported piece on the complicated relationship between Lower East Side political, social, and economic powerhouses of the last five decades, and how alliances among them may have led to major setbacks when it came to developing Manhattan's largest swath of undeveloped land below 96th Street. The Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, better known as SPURA, covers 20 acres that have been vacant since 1967, when the city demolished blocks of old apartment buildings and displaced 1,800 low-income families. Last year plans for giant mixed-used development Essex Crossing were unveiled, but what took so long to get something—anything—on the site? Well, there were at least two parties involved who allegedly delayed redevelopment there for their own interests.

Sheldon Silver, who represents the area in the State Assembly. William Rapfogel, former head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, who was arrested last year and charged with taking millions in kickbacks from the council. They deny any favoritism, but the Times found memos and conducted interviews with officials that point to sketchy colluding between the two to "promote specific plans and favored developers" (like Bruce Ratner) and, it appears, to maintain the area's Jewish identity as well as its demographics, which provided Silver a consistently supportive constituency. They both opposed building affordable housing on the site, whose potential tenants would impact both the identity and demographic concerns.

The article brings up multiple connections, communiques, and pointed political gestures made in the name of that agenda. They include: supporting a shopping center there in the 70s (over housing), opposing a 1980 proposal that included affordable housing, letting a Lefrak Organization plan with commercial and residential components get dropped by the city in the late 80s, and, in the 90s, championing a Ratner-developed big-box store with, yet again, no housing. There are personal connections, too. Rapfogel's wife works for Silver; his son works for Ratner. Political donations and fundraising crossovers offer more clues.

One reason, the article posits, that Essex Crossing (with at least 160 units of affordable housing written in, which is to say, not much) finally became a reality and got all the necessary approvals is because the Lower East Side gentrified and morphed so much since Silver's initial rise to political office that he couldn't hold out any longer. Ratner and the newly disgraced Rapfogel, who teamed up on a bid, were not chosen to develop SPURA. After reading this, it seems someone deserves a thank-you for that good call.
· They Kept a Lower East Side Lot Vacant for 47 Years [NYT]
· All SPURA coverage [Curbed]