Bowery Boogie

Why I’m Voting ‘YES’ Tomorrow on the Seward Park Air Rights Sale [OP-ED]

Last week, we posted an editorial from a Seward Park Co-op owner opposed to the sale of air rights to developer Ascend Group for its two-towered vision. Herewith, an op-ed from the other perspective on the shareholders vote, which happens tomorrow, written by Seward Park shareholder and former board member Marc Albaum.

Picture this. It’s a few years from now. Strolling down East Broadway you notice a change in the cityscape: two abandoned structures and an empty lot full of weeds have been replaced by two gleaming buildings at the heart of a bustling community, beside a thriving and financially sound Seward Park Housing.

Now let’s try a slightly altered reality: two gleaming new buildings have replaced abandoned structures and the old lot. But in this reality, Seward Park Housing is a debt-ridden financial basket case.

On June 12, tomorrow, we face a fateful choice. For some it’s between romanticism and realism, fact or fiction, and right and wrong. However the real choice we face is between the inevitable and the preventable.

It’s inevitable that two towers will rise. Ascend/Optimum will build them alongside the Bialystoker Nursing Home at 222 East Broadway regardless of the outcome of our referendum. We can either accept that reality or kid ourselves that the lots will remain undeveloped for decades to come. Accepting the inevitable hands us an opportunity to benefit and use today’s money to add value to our property, protect our assets by paying down our debt, and make necessary massive repairs that will certainly cost millions of dollars, that will certainly increase maintenance and assessments.

As the critical vote approaches, fear mongering has escalated; partial facts, and even lies, have been spread in an effort to convince you to vote NO. The fact is, the NO side has offered not a single credible financial reason to contest the very clear economic advantages we would gain with a YES vote. The NO side has failed to offer even a single recommendation as to how we could repair and maintain our co-op’s finances.

The YES side has looked for ways to reduce debt, increase reserves, and meet our required capital expenditures over the next few years without hurting our most financially vulnerable neighbors — those on fixed incomes or families burdened by high home mortgages. The NO side has no solutions for building our nest egg for inevitable emergencies.

Amazingly, the YES solution costs us nothing. $53 Million for air.

Those who say that there will be another opportunity are deluding you; this is a once-in-a lifetime benefit for us. Should NO win, the option is lost forever once the developers start building. We’ll be vulnerable spectators stuck with growing expenses and debt. But if we vote YES, we secure our finances and have a direct say in how and when the developer builds.

Ascend/Optimum has given us a chance to be part of this. They wouldn’t merely be buying some of our air rights, but have agreed to many terms that will benefit each and every one of us directly. We dictate the times they can begin construction, holidays and pauses they take, and aspects that affect trash collection and noise dampening, just to name a few. If we vote NO we have no say at all, and absolutely nothing to show for it.

A YES vote gives us money we all need to pay down our loans, make necessary repairs, invest in projects that may enhance our property values, and preserve our maintenance rates with no needs in the foreseeable future to raise them.

For those who claim their views will be blocked, they’re right — yet only half-true. Whether 17, 22 or 32 stories high, the buildings will rise and will be adjacent to ours. To quote Aldous Huxley, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” or in this case, denied.

Photo: Jewish Heritage mural before its erasure, September 2011

And here’s another inconvenient fact: without selling some air rights, Seward Park will need to borrow money — many millions — and will need to raise maintenance to pay for it. We must install 24 new elevators, repair failing brickwork and crumbling balconies — all while paying down an existing $20 million mortgage that costs us all plenty of money each month. Without proper capitalization, our apartments are less valuable because banks will charge higher fees to lend to buyers here, and our apartments will be appraised for less. That’s the unvarnished truth of real estate valuations.

To vote NO is elitist and looks back. To vote YES is progressive and looks forward. The naysayers got here late in the game after the neighborhood went through many changes, and now they want to freeze everything for themselves. They talk about their fantasies of a Lower East Side which never existed and never will. Yet they neglect to mention that Seward Park’s residents supported the move from limited equity to full market valuation in 1996, and that is the only reason they themselves are able to live here after paying market rates – in the $1 Million range, if not more. Ironically the NO vote is a selfish one that ignores the needs of vulnerable old timers on fixed incomes who will not be able to afford the increased maintenance and assessments that we will incur if we do not sell these air rights. The neighborhood has changed, new and bigger buildings are being built around us. This vote will not alter this fact.

We are trying to protect everyone, even the misguided naysayers. We are realists, driven by a single aim: to ensure that our co-op remains both valuable and affordable.

I am voting “YES” on the referendum.