City Officials Grilled on Two Bridges Mega-Towers During City Council Hearing

City Council member Margaret Chin questioned city officials during a hearing June 15.

City Council member Margaret Chin questioned city officials during a hearing June 15.

A hearing (watch the video) was held last week on City Council member Margaret Chin’s legislation that would require the city to notify communities when urban renewal areas are set to expire. The public meeting of the Council’s land use committee also offered local lawmakers an opportunity to grill representatives of city agencies about several proposed Two Bridges mega-towers.

Those projects would add about 2,000 mostly market-rate apartments in towers ranging in height from 62-80 stories along the East Side waterfront. A joint environmental review is now underway for the large-scale towers, which are located in an urban renewal area that expired in 2007.  The review does not include Extell Development’s One Manhattan Square, an 80-story luxury condo project that will add another 1,000 apartments to the immediate area.

During the hearing, Council member Chin argued that public notification would have given her community an important tool to fight over-development. Residents would have been able, she explained, to ask for an extension of the urban renewal area or a rezoning if they had known restrictions on development were set to expire. In a press release, she stated, “We must take action now to ensure that all communities, especially those that are predominately low income and of color, are equipped with the knowledge and tools to protect their neighborhoods. Though we cannot turn back time to prevent the expiration of the Two Bridges URA, this legislation is integral to my mission to keep similar situations from happening again, and to carry on the fight by continuing to demand a full public review, including an up-or-down City Council vote, on the mega-towers at Two Bridges.”

Last summer, the Department of City Planning rejected Chin’s request for a ULURP in the Two Bridges area, a full land use review that would have given the Council a formal role in deciding whether the projects move forward. The agency said proposed changes in the Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Plan amounted to a “minor modification” as opposed to a “major modification” of the plan, meaning a ULURP was not required. 

Rendering shows four large-scale projects coming to the waterfront in the Two Bridges area.

Rendering shows four large-scale projects coming to the waterfront in the Two Bridges area.

At last Thursday’s hearing, Chin noted that the underlying zoning along the waterfront (C6-4a) permits what she called “humungous” towers. But she argued that the new buildings are definitely not in the spirit of the original urban renewal area. Every time she sees photos of the Extell tower, said Chin, “it makes me sick to my stomach.” She added, “What is being proposed is totally out of scale. We cannot allow (the plan) to go forward.” Addressing officials from the Department of City Planning and Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Chin asserted, “You share responsibility with us. Something has got to be done.”

The officials said they agreed in principle with Chin’s proposal for public notification, but they pushed back on the notion that the towers in the Two Bridges area are inappropriate for the neighborhood. The chairman of the land use committee, David Greenfield, asked a series of pointed questions of the city bureaucrats and argued that stronger legislation is required to protect local communities. 

Representatives from the Department of City Planning said the Lower East Side plans were deemed to be “minor modifications” because the developers were not asking for new or modified waivers. They were simply asking the city to lift floor area limits. Greenfield, however, made the case that any plan adding 2.2 million square feet and 2,000 apartments to an existing neighborhood, “amounts to a pretty big modification.”

Photo courtesy of the Office of Council member Margaret Chin.

Community members and advocates testified at last week’s hearing. Photo courtesy of the Office of Council member Margaret Chin.

Erik Botsford, deputy Manhattan director of City Planning, said, “We understand the community’s concerns (about these projects).” He conceded that the phrase, “minor modification,” is “perhaps an unfortunate term” in reference to one-thousand foot towers. The officials, however, insisted that the projects are allowable under New York’s land use rules.

Greenfield countered by asking, “Would you agree that this is a major change to the original plan?” He also asked why Mayor de Blasio would not have insisted on a rezoning in the area to require affordable housing in the new projects (the developers are voluntarily setting aside 25% of their units for affordable housing in exchange for tax benefits). City Planning’s Joel Kolkmann responded, “These are obviously large buildings.” He said the city’s new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program (MIH) is only feasible in neighborhoods that can be upzoned (Two Bridges is already zoned for maximum density). “These types of large-scale districts are not unusual along the waterfront,” said Kolkmann, arguing that the large-scale towers under review are appropriate for the community. 

There was also testimony from Trever Holland, a tenant leader who read a statement on behalf of neighborhood advocacy groups GOLES and CAAAV. He said there are serious concerns about the threat of displacement of low-income tenants as a result of the luxury developments. He also cited worries about flood protection in the low-lying area and noted the city’s refusal to consider a large-scale rezoning of the community as proposed by the Chinatown Working Group.

In the end, Greenfield told city officials he believes there’s obviously a flaw in the law if massive development projects like the ones under review in the Two Bridges aren’t subject to public review. He called it a loophole that needs to be closed.

On a related note, a community engagement meeting will be held Saturday, June 24 to discuss the Two Bridges environmental review. It will take place at the Manny Cantor Center, 197 East Broadwaay, from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

The projects include a 79-story tower at 247 Cherry St. from JDS Development Group; 62 ad 69 story 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.