Gallery: SPURA and Urban Design: Why Settle for a Near-miss?

Nearly half a century ago, somewhere around 7,000 residents were displaced from their homes on the Lower East Side to make way for an urban renewal project. That area still sits empty today, home to no one except some parked cars and trucks. Years of contentious proposals have defied approval, but that is on the verge of changing. A master plan for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, lovingly known as SPURA, has survived nearly all the gauntlets of NYC’s approvals process, awaiting now only the approval of the City Council and the mayor. The seemingly permanent hole in the middle of the LES may actually get filled, perhaps re-knitting together the areas above and below Delancey Street.

Through the marathon process, community interests pressed, negotiated and mostly persevered in a quest for guarantees of affordable housing and for a way to preserve some aspect of the European-style Essex Market, scheduled for demolition in the proposal.

That should be great news and, indeed, some are celebrating. But in spite of all the hard-won successes – in fact maybe because of them –there are causes for concern because, to put it bluntly, the proposal is still rooted in old-school planning concepts. In the skirmishes to achieve those vital community goals, attention has been deflected from other areas. And that may have a very negative effect on the success of both the project and the re-knitting of the community.

The old school I’m referring to is the one in which cars are the life blood of the community and streets are the arteries for their circulation. (It’s no accident that major streets are called arterial routes.) In that outdated approach, a “shopping district” – note that it’s not called a community — succeeds only if drivers can get there and have easy places to park, and only if there is at least one large store or “anchor tenant” to draw them there.

Enlightened planners, such as those in the NYC Department of City Planning, know this isn’t true. In several transit-heavy areas of the city, new zoning rules are (gasp) cutting back on parking requirements, acknowledging the concept of “transit-oriented development” in which driving is discouraged where ample public transportation is available. (Note that the SPURA proposal is actually asking for more parking, beyond what the old zoning allows.) Developers love this, too, because they don’t have to waste money on expensive urban parking garages. Money and land are potentially freed up for better uses.

The result is communities that are pedestrian-oriented, where the streets exist mostly for people to walk between homes and businesses or from the subway station to wherever they’re going. For this to work, though, walking those streets also needs to be inviting and active. Which is where the anchor store issue comes up. Typical new urban and semi-urban buildings tend to be large-scale, perhaps block-long structures, designed with ground floors to accommodate the types of stores that have proliferated of late, ranging from the ubiquitous Walgreens and bank branches to the truly large Bed, Bath & Beyond-type big boxes.

What all these have in common, aside from being chain stores, is that they focus inward, draining life from the street while putting locally owned stores out of business. And then when that big store closes, the street is deader still, leaving behind the urban equivalent of “dead malls.”

NYC planners have recognized this, too. On the Upper West Side, where entire blocks of chain stores have displaced the color and character of the former stores, a new regulation limits the width of store fronts. But this is not written into the SPURA requirements. Community appeals were met with a halfway solution placing mid to big box stores on the second floor. The guidelines, however, suggest that the ground floor spaces can be up to 10,000 square feet, which is still many times larger than the typical LES storefront. So the block-long proposed buildings and their storefronts will learn little from and bear no resemblance to the vitality of the adjoining streets – the ones that weren’t cleared 45 years ago and are now populated with an eclectic mix of stores dating back many decades interspersed with boutiques and upscale restaurants.

I long to see those eyesore parking lots on Delancey Street gone. But I don’t want us to end up with another generic design that could be plopped down anywhere, where the lessons of car-centric planning and failed shopping malls are ignored.

There is a lot to like in the current SPURA plan, courtesy of the hard work of many in the community. But we needn’t and shouldn’t accept a plan that sacrifices the uniqueness of the Lower East Side for a formulaic approach still mired in discredited ideas. It’s not too late to insist on a concept that adopts all the best interests of the community, not just some of them.

David Bergman, principal of David Bergman Architect and founder of Fire & Water Lighting, is an architect and ecodesigner. In addition to his practice, he teaches sustainable design at Parsons the New School for Design. He is the author of the recently published Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide. His blog, EcoOptimism, combines his backgrounds in design, economics and policy, and seeks to show how we can come out the other side of our concurrent ecological and economic crises in a better place than we started.

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