Two Bridges Neighbors Tell Mega-Tower Developers: “You’re Offering Us Crumbs”

Developers of mega-projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood addressed locals July 23. That's Michael Stern, head of JDS, with the microphone.

Developers of mega-projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood addressed locals July 23. That’s Michael Stern, head of JDS, with the microphone.

About a year-and-a-half ago, residents of the Two Bridges neighborhood were promised they would have a meaningful role in the environmental review for three proposed mega-projects along the waterfront. At the first public engagement meeting, held in December of 2016, they were more than a little skeptical (See this: “Residents Doubt Their Concerns Will Be Heard”). Now the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is complete. At a meeting of Community Board 3 held July 23, residents’ worst fears were realized, as the developers outlined the findings and proposed mitigations.

At the meeting of CB3’s land use committee, the developers presented a synopsis of the 800 page document and talked about possible neighborhood improvements, including a new elevator at the East Broadway Subway Station and the renovation of three local parks. Community board members and community residents were less than impressed, telling the developers they were offering “crumbs” in exchange for reduced light, increased traffic and overcrowded schools.

The projects would add 2,775 mostly market rate rental units to the historically low-income Two Bridges area. 694 apartments (25%) would be designated as permanently affordable. The developers are JDS Development Group, a partnership between L+M Development Partners and the CIM Group and The Starrett Group. Their proposed towers would range in height from 63-80 stories.

Rendering shows Two Bridges waterfront with several proposed large-scale buildings. Credit: SHoP Architects.

Rendering shows Two Bridges waterfront with several proposed large-scale buildings. Credit: SHoP Architects.

A public hearing is scheduled before the City Planning Commission Oct. 17. But first, Community Board 3 will hold a hearing to gather local comments. It’s scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 14, 6:30 p.m. at M.S. 131, 100 Hester St. Anyone wishing to speak has two minutes to offer testimony about the impact of the projects on local schools, transportation, streets, affordable housing, neighborhood character, etc.

The developers were represented at the July meeting by attorney David Karnovsky, who just happens to be former general counsel of the Department of City Planning. He was backed up by a sizable team from AKRF, the influential consulting firm that prepared the environmental review for the three development teams.

Even though the Draft EIS was paid for and overseen by the developers, Karnovsky stated, “It’s a city document, not a developer document,” adding, that the environmental impact statement was “reviewed by the city, vetted by the city.” It’s a highly technical process based on the City Environmental Quality Review Manual, which lays out very high thresholds for mitigating impacts in areas such as public schools and roadways.

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Throughout the meeting, numerous community members expressed frustration that, in their view, the Draft EIS fails to account for the true impacts of the mega-towers on the surrounding area. Testimony by Melanie Wang from the local advocacy organization CAAAV was particularly emotional and pointed.

In a brief section (1 1/2 pages long) on “indirect residential displacement,” Wang noted, the Draft EIS concluded that the influx of 2,000 market rate apartments would have no “significant adverse environmental impacts” on the large amount of rent regulated housing in the neighborhood. The study authors asserted that these affordable units are protected from “market influences” through rent stabilization and other regulatory programs.

At CAAAV, said Wang, she “works with rent regulated tenants every day who are being harassed out of their homes.” Wang added, “I think every resident of this neighborhood knows” that the addition of pricey rentals in shiny new towers will imperil the Lower East Side’s dwindling stock of affordable housing.

During her remarks, Wang read from an article in Luxury Listings NYC, which profiled One Manhattan Square, Extell’s 80-story condo tower on the former Cherry Street Pathmark site. In the story, a real estate broker who sells a lot of high-end condos on the Lower East Side, Ariel Tirosh, said all of the new projects would raise the profile of the gritty area. He speculated that, “eventually, if the developers are careful, (Two Bridges) will become a neighborhood.”

This mentality, explained Wang, appears to have permeated the real estate industry. Speaking directly to the developers sitting in the first row, she said, “I’m going to tell you and everyone else in this room is here to tell you that this is already a neighborhood. It’s been a neighborhood for a long time.” Even though they’re bringing in thousands of market rate apartments to a working class, immigrant neighborhood, Wang asserted that the existing community will “remain and persist.” Referring to the dramatic changes the towers would bring, she concluded, “It is outrageous to me that this DEIS ignores that change, that potential impact.”

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It goes without saying that many Two Bridges residents will not be content with a new swing set at their local park or a new stairwell leading to the F Train. One tenant leader, Marc Richardson, said, “I haven’t talked to anyone in the community who isn’t outright opposed to the developments, or wouldn’t want to see them significantly reduced.” Another tenant leader, Trever Holland, referred to Extell’s monstrous tower, saying, “I want anyone to raise their hand if they think that 80-story building that sits next to Manhattan Bridge is appropriate from any angle in the city.”

Local activists and elected officials are fighting the projects in a couple of different ways. First, City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer are trying to push through a zoning text amendment to require a ULURP in the Two Bridges area. The full-scale land use review would give the City Council some leverage, since ULURP requires Council approval. Second, local groups are advocating for a neighborhood rezoning, including height caps and mandatory levels of affordable housing.

During the recent meeting, Julian Morales of the neighborhood group GOLES pointed out that people at a public scoping hearing last year asked to have the rezoning option studied in the environmental review. “That’s a true alternative, a reasonable alternative to have considered,” he argued. Karnovsky responded by saying that the rezoning proposal wasn’t studied because it didn’t meet the developers’ objectives. According to the Draft EIS, those objectives include: 

…creating up to 2,775 new residential units… of which 25 percent or up to 694 residential units would be designated as permanently affordable, including approximately 200 new units of low-income senior housing, advancing a City-wide initiative to build and preserve 200,000 affordable units over 10 years in order to support New Yorkers with a range of incomes; provide additional resiliency measures at each site; achieve high quality urban design, architecture, community facility space, and open space elements; enhance the surrounding streetscape and enliven the pedestrian experience, through the creation of new buildings, landscaping, and open space on the project sites… ;add to the retail mix already located in the Two Bridges neighborhood; and strengthen the City’s tax base by encouraging development and employment opportunities in the area.

Questions were raised about several conclusions in the Draft EIS. A lot of time was spent discussing the section on public schools. If the projects include 200 apartments for seniors, the environmental review found, there would be no need to add elementary school seats. If there’s no new senior housing, the developers say there would be a small impact, creating a deficit of  16 seats in local schools. As a mitigation, they would potentially pay the Department of Education to relocate administrative offices now located in area schools, or “make other space within the district available to the DOE.”  The study authors say they consulted with the School Construction Authority in evaluating the capacity of area school buildings.

CB3 member Lisa Kaplan said, “Already we have janitors’ closets being used as school nurses’ offices or administrative space. These buildings have been crammed to the fullest.” The fact that AKRF consulted with the School Construction Authority, which has a long history of underestimating local population trends, said Kaplan, “gives us very little assurance that anything reasonable would be determined.”

Another community board member, Dominic Berg, questioned how the developers conducted their analysis of available school seats. He asked how many studio, one-bedroom, 2-bedroom (etc.) apartments were planned in the new towers, in an effort to assess how many school-age children might be coming into the community. The developers did not have an answer, explaining that — in keeping with city planning guidelines — they used a standard formula (“We use an average,” said Karnovsky). Their analysis concluded that the projects would generate a need for 309 additional elementary school seats.  “The numbers you are using are basically bunk,” said Berg. “Once again, we are being screwed as a community when it comes to schools.”

Berg pointed out that a site has been reserved for a public school as part of the Essex Crossing project on Grand Street, although the School Construction Authority has declined to allocate funding. Here’s an exchange between Berg and Karnovsky on the topic:

Berg: “Has there been any consideration of the developers offering to fund the construction of the school?” 

Karnovsky: “We’re working with a 16 seat deficit, which is different than (building a new) school.”

Berg: “I take that as a no.”

Karnovsky: “We are committed to funding the gap, of finding ways to do that usefully… We’re not looking at an entirely new school.”

The president of District 1’s Community Education Council (CEC1), Naomi Pena, shared some concerns of her own. Noting that no one from CEC1 had been approached during the first phase of the environmental review, she said, “I think it’s really important that if you want to have a discussion about the impact on our schools you have to talk to the stakeholders who are representing them.” She said the analysis was clearly flawed. “16 seats?,” she asked. “Absolutely asinine. It’s an insult to everyone’s intelligence.”

“I am trying to prevent another Tribeca in this neighborhood,” she explained, in a reference to the school overcrowding crisis that has unfolded in Lower Manhattan during the past decade. 

Another topic that came up is the developers’ plan to add an elevator leading to the subway at East Broadway and Rutgers Street, and new, wider staircases on Madison Street. The developers touted the improvements, estimated to cost at least $40 million, as ADA-accessible.

Linda Jones, a community board member who lives near Seward Park, said,  “I was a little disturbed when I realized that the elevator would be placed at the north end. That’s great for those of us who live in that area, but we should have another one at the south end (closer to the Two Bridges projects). The north end also has an escalator.”

In the environmental review, more than 30 intersections were studied to evaluate additional congestion as a result of the projects. AKRF found that about a half dozen intersections would suffer “significant adverse traffic impacts.” According to the Draft EIS, “the majority of the locations where significant adverse traffic impacts are predicted to occur could be fully mitigated with the implementation of standard traffic mitigation measures (e.g., signal timing changes and lane re-striping)…” The Draft EIS also states, “The significant adverse traffic impacts at the South Street and Montgomery Street intersection and at the Chatham Square and Worth Street/Oliver Street intersection could not be mitigated.”

CB3 member Trever Holland, who lives at South Street and Rutgers Street, asked why no mitigations were planned at that intersection.

Chi Chan, a vice president at AKRF responded, “There were no impacts… There are incremental impacts that determine what the threshold will be (and those thresholds were not reached at this intersection).”

Holland shot back, “Right in the middle of all of the proposed developments — and you don’t think there’s going to be any impact at that intersection? There is a senior building at the corner. A couple of years ago three seniors were killed on South Street.”

The developers are planning to spend $15 million to upgrade three public spaces: Coleman Playground, Captain Jacob Joseph Playground and Little Flower Playground. Holland has questioned how they decided which parks would receive funding. Karnovsky said it was partly based on input from the city’s Parks Department, as well as feedback from local residents during a series of outreach events last year.

A meeting was held in the Two Bridges area in December of 2016.

A meeting was held in the Two Bridges area in December of 2016.

Holland said very few locals actually chimed in on the subject of park improvements, and he called for more robust engagement with the community. He also said there are obviously public spaces along the waterfront in desperate need of financing. Holland specifically mentioned Pier 42; only a small portion of that future recreational space has received funding. Karnovsky responded, “It’s our understanding it is funded for phases that are within our build years.”  Grace Mak, another local resident, said she didn’t understand why the heavily used Cherry Clinton Playground would not be slated for major renovations. 

Other speakers voiced their displeasure with the projects and the proposed mitigations. One woman said, “You want to give us an elevator? Pretty much, you’re giving us crumbs. A crumb, to be exact.  How about offering us a hospital, a new school, an affordable supermarket? As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your crumbs.”

In the past, the developers have defended their projects, and emphasized various efforts to reach out to the local community. During the meeting, Karnovsky repeated some of those same talking points. At one point, he said, “We are not doing the bear minimum.” While indicating he did not wish to disparage Extell’s One Manhattan Square (where there has been virtually no meaningful community outreach), Karnovsky added, “This is not the Extell project.”

He also indicated that the developers are eager to hear additional feedback from CB3. The “DEIS identifies potential (mitigation) measures. Members of this board have a role to play,” he added. “They are not written in stone.”