Two Bridges Mega Projects: Residents Doubt Their Concerns Will Be Heard

Rendering shows huge new towers dotting the East Side waterfront.

Rendering shows huge new towers dotting the East Side waterfront.

We have spent a lot of time during the past few months talking about four large-scale development projects coming to the Two Bridges area. There’s a good reason why. In the years ahead, these developments will bring more than 3700 new apartments to the neighborhood, transforming the waterfront community of the Lower East Side.

Today we’re taking a look at what happened last week when the development teams, local elected officials and residents piled into a community room for the first of four public meetings to discuss the projects. The session, held at Gouverneur Health Dec. 15, was part of a joint environmental review of the Two Bridges proposals.

The city this past summer rejected Council member Margaret Chin’s request for a full land use review (ULURP) in the Two Bridges area. Instead, the Department of City Planning and the developers teamed up with local office holders for what has been described as an enhanced study of environmental impacts.

They’ll be looking at three projects, including a 79-story tower at 247 Cherry St. from JDS Development Group, twin towers from L+M Development Partners and the CIM Group at 260 South St. and a 62-story building by the Starrett Group at 259 Clinton St. An 80-story luxury complex from Extell Development, now under construction, is not part of the environmental review.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin kicked off last week’s event, addressing a skeptical audience about the merits of the public process that’s now unfolding. The two elected officials have been coordinating the work of a community task force that recently began meeting behind closed doors regarding the development projects.

“The good news is that your input is real,” said Brewer. Noting that oftentimes public meetings “don’t mean anything,” the borough president asserted, “the real fact is that your input means something.”  Chin agreed, saying, “Your input does count. Even though we could not get a ULURP, we fought for it (and) didn’t get it, we want to make sure, in this whole process, that with three major developments coming… we hear from the community about what is needed…”

The meeting was choreographed by Rebecca Karp of Karp Strategies, an urban planning consulting firm. She was hired by the development team, as was AKRF, the environmental consultants who will prepare a draft Environmental Impact Statement to be submitted to the City Planning Commission.

Karp pointed out that, in contrast with a regular environmental review, the general public will be involved from the very beginning in this process. They’ll help shape a scoping document, detailing exactly what will be studied in each of 18 categories. They’ll be looking at the impact of the three developments on schools, transportation, open space, air quality, etc. The environmental review also must spell out proposed mitigations (remedies) to address these impacts.

One local resident asked, “What kind of weight will our suggestions have?” Almost no one in the neighborhood wants to see towers put up that are three and four times the height of existing buildings. But since the projects are all allowable under current zoning, there’s little anyone will be able to do to stop them. “Would I like to have small buildings?, said Borough President Brewer. “Yes, but I’m not sure that will be as possible. Almost everything else is on the table.”

One audience member, Ozzie Hernandez, was more than skeptical. “I have never seen a consultant hired by a developer,” he said,  “come back with the true effects that (a project) is going to have on the community… I don’t think the community really has a say-so.”

In response, Brewer told Hernandez, “The best that the Council member and I can do (is) to have serious community input about what goes into and around the buildings, and maybe, make them smaller. Could we make them smaller like you and I would like? I don’t know. I’m being honest with you.”

two bridges meeting 3

One-by-one, the development teams presented very brief overviews of their projects. But before this part of the meeting could begin, the evening’s proceedings were nearly derailed by outraged residents fed up with rampant real estate development on the Lower East Side.

As Michael Stern of JDS Development Group came up on stage, a man in the back third of the room yelled, “You greedy corporate fuck… Get the fuck out of (this neighborhood).”  Hernandez spoke up again, saying, “Everyone in this room has a financial interest. How many millions are being paid to people in this room?” Another audience member added, “This decision has already been made. You are wasting our time.”

Matthew Washington, a deputy borough president who was moderating the discussion, struggled to regain control. It was 10 minutes or so before local tenant leaders managed to refocus the conversation. Trever Holland stood up to say, “I live at 82 Rutgers Slip. I live right next to the Extell project… I want to see what they’re building.” Nancy Ortiz, tenant leader at the Vladeck Houses, added, “These people (the developers) own this land as-of-right. These people already have the right to build these buildings. This (an environmental review) is something we demanded because we are concerned about the impact of these four developments in the community. Can we please be respectful?! I am asking please, can everyone just listen to the developers and then ask your questions.”

collage

(L-R) 247 Cherry St., 260 South St., 259 Clinton St.

Project: 247 Cherry St.
Developer: JDS Development Group
Building Size: 79 floors, 1008 feet, 504,175 square feet
Apartments: Up to 660, 25% affordable
Retail: 2500 square feet
More Information: Our interview with the development team

Project: 260 South St.
Developer: L+M Development Partners, CIM Group
Building Size: 69 + 62 floors, 798 feet, 1,125,000 square feet
Apartments: Up to 1350, 25% affordable
Retail: Up to 5300 square feet in existing buildings
More Information: Our interview with the development team

Project: 259 Clinton St.
Developer: Starrett Development
Building Size: 62 floors, 724 feet, 592,890 square feet
Apartments: Up to 732, 25% affordable
Retail: 2500 square feet
More Information: Our interview with the development team

Total Apartments: 2742
Total Affordable Units: 686
Retail: 10.300 square feet
Total Square Footage: 2,222,065

 

When the developers were finally able to speak, they emphasized that the market rate projects would also include more than 600 units of affordable housing. They talked up the resiliency measures being undertaken to protect the buildings from future storms and highlighted new retail and open space amenities that would be added to the community.

A senior resident of 80 Rutgers Slip spoke up, referencing the fact that JDS’s tower will be cantilevered over his home. “An 80 story building over the top of my head!?,” he screamed. The man said that senior residents had been let down. “Now you want to know, after the fact, how we feel about it?,” he said incredulously. In past meetings, JDS explained that tenants in several units would be displaced during construction. One member of the audience asked for more details. Michael Stern replied that nine seniors would be relocated for about three years. When the new building opens, they will be given new apartments, he said, adding that social workers will be helping to relocate the displaced residents.

There were other questions about the lack of parking in the neighborhood, overburdened local schools and whether construction jobs would be set aside for local residents. Few definitive answers were offered. Parking and the impact of new residents on neighborhood schools will both be studied in the environmental review.  There were promises to hire within the community whenever possible.

two bridges meeting 1

Other residents raised concerns about the future of Stop 1 Deli, a longtime business at 265 Cherry St.. They said that the deli, located within a building L+M and CIM Group own, has been under the threat of eviction. After the Cherry Street Pathmark store closed a few years ago, it’s the only place in the immediate area for people to buy milk, coffee and other staples. One man asked, “Are you talking about tripling their rent to get them out?” Katherine Kelman of L+M responded, “We recognize that it’s the only source of food (in the neighborhood) and that it’s important to the community.” She said the management team has been working with Stop 1 to, “correct a number of issues that they’ve had” and that the business will have the “opportunity to stay” when lease negotiations for the revamped retail spaces begin.

While there were some concerns about commercial displacement, there was even more anxiety about the prospect of residential tenants being forced from the community. The developers have said that no residents will be displaced from buildings adjacent to the building sites. One speaker said she’s worried about secondary displacement, a likely result of increased rents and rising property values in the area. “Will you support anti-harassment measures?,” she asked, asserting that people in the Two Bridges area, “need protection from developers like you. I don’t see how you will fight against your own interests.”

Over and over, speakers returned to one central topic: the massive scale of the proposed projects. One resident asked, “What about building shorter buildings?” Noting that all of them will be constructed in very close proximity to peoples’ homes, the speaker wanted to know, “Why are all three developers building up against (existing properties)?” The development teams responded that they have designed projects that make use of all of the floor area allowable under zoning regulations. They said the new towers, to the best of the architects’ ability, have been positioned to impact their neighbors as little as possible.

In the end, the conversation came back to the value of this environmental review process and whether it will end up making any difference in the community. Damaris Reyes, executive director of the tenant advocacy group GOLES, wanted to know what happens if the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) finds there are “adverse impacts. ”

“If (for example) the EIS finds there are not enough school seats, not enough transportation — will (the city administration) approve (the plans anyway), and if they don’t approve them, can the project still move forward?”

The consultants working for the development teams said the Department of City Planning (DCP) can lay out conditions for approval. They said that the applications for “minor modifications” in the Two Bridges Large-Scale Development Area must be signed off by DCP. They cannot move forward otherwise. But they added, “DCP can decide that, on balance the, benefits (of the projects) outweigh the impacts.”

Following last week’s meeting we checked in with Council member Chin’s office. We were offered the following statement about the environmental review process:

As an as-of-right project built without any environmental review, Extell’s One Manhattan Square development has been a disaster for our community. That is why I joined the Borough President to ask for a major modification to the existing large-scale plan in order to maximize public review of these three new developments. Instead, we got a process that will result in public input being included in an Environmental Impact Statement. I understand and share the frustration of residents about this process, but it is the only one available to ensure that the public gets the increased transportation options, public school seats, construction mitigation and real affordable housing that our community needs. Last (Thursday) night’s meeting was just the beginning of a substantial public process. I thank residents for braving the cold and making their voices heard.

Karp Strategies has set up a website with more details about the upcoming meetings and about the three projects. The next session will take place in January.