Op-Ed: Saying No to Big Box in SPURA

Posted on: March 16th, 2012 at 11:25 am by

The following op-ed was written by Boogie reader David Bergman, an architect who has lived in the Lower East Side for just shy of 30 years. He also teaches ecodesign at Parsons and his book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, will be released next month.

It’s only taken, oh, a few generations. The long-vacant blocks around Delancey and Essex Streets, the sites collectively known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), may finally re-merge into the fabric of the Lower East Side. And for the most part that’s a good thing. The decades-old parking lots have done nothing to improve the neighborhood, and the no-mans-land has felt like a hole in the heart of the Lower East Side.

But the current plans for the area, as outlined in the Lo-Down this week, are far from ideal. Putting aside the controversies over the potential demise or relocation of the Essex Street Market and the duration of affordable housing rates, the apparent determination that a big box retailer (or two or three?) is necessary represents an outdated and inappropriate approach to urban development in general and to the LES in particular.

The defining characteristics of the LES include its (until recently) low-rise buildings which lend it more of a neighborhood feel, an atmosphere that is enhanced by the presence of primarily locally-owned stores. Much of the flavor of our neighborhood derives from the community created when we know local storeowners and staff. Just think of the many friends and characters we encounter in a simple outing for a few provisions.

The Upper West Side used to be more like that, but now much of it seems to be a succession of big box and chain stores. Fortunately for us, the nature of the building stock down here means that storefronts are relatively small, resisting anything larger than the occasional Duane Reade. (I try to ignore the recent onslaught of Starbucks and Subways. Why go there when we have any number of great local shops? And don’t get me started on Domino’s. Keep those in towns that don’t know how to make real pizza.)

At the last Community Board 3 Land Use subcommittee meeting, NYC Economic Development senior VP  David Quart asserted that a project of this size must have an “anchor tenant.”  The term anchor store or anchor tenant comes from the world of shopping malls, and the theory there was that a large name-brand store would serve as the draw attracting shoppers to the mall and to the other smaller stores. But that approach doesn’t apply in an urban situation where the customers (that’d be us) are already there and therefore don’t have to make the decision to travel a longer distance. (Furthermore, the shopping mall with anchor tenant model isn’t working so well these days even in the suburbs where it was first applied.)

The wonderful thing about an urban street is the activity. That’s been understood and accepted since the days of Jane Jacobs 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 inside is different, too; the atmosphere in the tiny local pharmacy nearby– 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.

What we fear

Some will say that discount retailers provide a service: more (generic!) 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 decides that the store isn’t making quite enough profit and closes it, leaving a desolate stretch of unoccupied street, now with no shopping alternatives.

I’m by no means against change or progress. And I’m totally in favor of mending the ugly gap in the LES, but the solution is not in bringing in discredited formulas from elsewhere. There’s a reason we love living here; let’s build upon  that.

[Wal-Mart photo via Hyper Literature]

Recent Stories

STIK’s 7-Story ‘Migrant Mural’ on Allen Street Raised $12,500 for the Tenement Museum

Street artist STIK’s latest mural has been on view for a month at the southeast corner of Delancey and Allen Streets. The 7-story piece was painted in conjunction with the Fat Free Art gallery and the Tenement Museum. Proceeds from the exhibition in the Allen Street showroom – totaling $12,500 – go toward the museum’s […]

Councilwoman Margaret Chin Threatens Legal Action Over Two Bridges Supertall Towers

Last Friday, local politicans and community leaders held a rally outside the senior center at 80 Rutgers Street to protest the so-called “wall of glass” coming to the Two Bridges waterfront. The media stunt was an effort to push the City Planning Commission to think twice before approving the applications for these monstrous buildings when […]

Seward Park Co-op Board Prevails Against Disgruntled Residents in Parking Garage Privatizing Lawsuit

The civil war that polarized the Seward Park Co-ops for the last year finally concluded last week. The Seward Park Board of Directors essentially privatized the garage as a for-profit parking operation when it entered a ten-year lease with Icon/Quik Park in early 2016. It was a 6 to 5 vote at the time. According […]

‘L’Amico’ Backers Propose New Venue for Mysterious Jarmulowsky Bank Hotel

Guess those alleged plans for “creative” commercial offices at the Jarmulowsky Bank Building – first disclosed last summer – are no longer in the cards. The Community Board 3 agenda for next month’s SLA applicants is revealing enough. It lists 9 Orchard Street (aka 54 Canal) on the docket for hotel license consideration. But that’s […]

Danny the Steward of Orchard Street Faces Eviction, Pleads for Help

While Nathan might be the mayor of upper Orchard Street, south of the Delancey divide, that title belongs to a bearded man named Danny Coffey. You’ve definitely crossed paths with him, forever patrolling the block between Grand and Broome Streets, often whistling loudly to himself. Danny is now in a tough spot and seeks community […]

  • David

    No WalMart! 

  • There’s plenty of hardware stores and building supply stores around, so we don’t need a Home Depot.  Essex market covers groceries.  Bed, Bath and Beyond crappy goods are definitely not welcome.  
    Big box stores over there would also present a traffic nightmare that couldn’t even be described.  

    Maybe they could do something interesting like make it a park for the billions of families on the LES.

    And yes David, definitely NO Walmart.

    N

  • Guest

    So, Delancey Street is one of the most dangerous streets in the City for walking people where cars race on and off the bridge, but they want to build a magnet for pedestrian shoppers there?! How is that not premeditated murder of future residents and visitors? I understand that density is good for government coffers, but isn’t there a limit to how safely commercial and residential can be crushed together? Maybe there’s something I just don’t understand about City Planning.