At the annual meeting of the Seward Park Cooperative board on Tuesday, turnout was high for one of the most important votes the shareholders have ever taken: selling the 1,700-unit complex’s excess development rights to the Ascend Group, a developer planning two condominium towers nearby. About 1,300 apartment units participated, with 57 percent in favor, but that vote fell short of the two-thirds majority required by the co-op’s rules. The $54 million deal is now off the table.
“Obviously we’re very disappointed,” said Wayne Heicklen of Ascend. “We thought that the shareholders would appreciate the fact that they are basically selling us something they otherwise can’t use or sell to anybody else and that this was kind of a one time opportunity to be paid 54 million dollars.”
The $54 million sum from the sale would have helped pay off the co-op’s mortgage and funded capital improvements to its buildings. Ascend also would have paid residents’ maintenance fees for four months.
Instead of building a 22-story tower and a 33-story tower near the edge of the Seward Park complex at 222 East Broadway, the developer will move forward with two smaller buildings of 17 and 20 stories. Some residents, mostly advanced in age, recently told the New York Times they were concerned the scale of the buildings would change the neighborhood and usher in even more gentrification.
But other residents against the sale of the air rights may have had their own agendas.
Adam Varsano, a co-op resident who attended Tuesday’s vote and supported the air rights deal, said some neighbors he had spoken to who opposed the sale did so for more personal reasons. One was upset with the management company for failing to send an exterminator, another held a grudge about how the co-op board handled a public hallways improvement project more than a decade ago, he said. Varsano thinks many of the opposing residents, who are retired and living on fixed incomes, voted against their own interests. “It seems to me that the people who voted no are the people who probably need the help the most.”
Though the turnout was high, other residents evidently felt the politics had hit too close to home. Mark Aaron Polger, a librarian at the City University of New York, tweeted his disapproval of the process on Wednesday. “As a Seward Park Co-op Shareholder, I DID NOT vote on the air rights issue. I was harassed by daily propaganda delivered to my doorstep. Thanks to my neighbours! I became irritated, frustrated, & angry.”
Seward Park was built by unionized garment workers in the 1950s as a “limited equity co-op,” which kept prices low and affordable until the 1990s, when it became a market-rate complex. The co-op board imposes a significant “flip-tax” on sales, however.
Doron Stember, a urologist and the president of the co-op board who supported the sale, would not initially immediately comment on the vote, saying he was still working to “clarify an issue” with the company hired to organize and count the co-op vote. A spokesperson for Seward Park said the company was still comparing paper ballots to online votes to make sure no one voted twice. After this story was published the board issued the following statement: “Although a majority voted in favor of selling air rights, the supermajority threshold required by our bylaws was not reached. The Board had prepared for both possible referendum outcomes and will move forward with refinancing our mortgage.”