Lawsuits Likely After City Planning Commission Approves Mega-Towers in Two Bridges Area

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.

Ignoring pleas from the Lower East Side community and elected officials, the City Planning Commission approved three mega-projects in the Two Bridges area earlier today. Community groups are now threatening a lawsuit.

The projects will add 2,775 mostly market rate rental units along the historically low-income waterfront. 694 apartments (25%) will 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. The towers will range in height from 63-80 stories.

“In a city at peak population and bursting at the seams, adding significant amounts of new housing in Lower Manhattan is a truly rare opportunity,” said City Planning Chair Marisa Lago.” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin wanted a full land use review (ULURP). The City Planning Commission rejected the request, calling the proposals “minor modifications” of the Two Bridges Large-Scale Residential Plan. “For a straightforward legal matter matter,” Lago asserted today, “the commission can’t require a ULURP unless authorized to do so by the City Charter and zoning resolution.”

Ten commissioners voted in favor, while three others voted no. As AM New York noted, Commissioner Allen Cappelli had misgivings about the projects but said he thinks the commission’s, “hands are tied legally.” Commissioner Michelle de la Uz voted against the mega-towers, saying, “I do not believe the actions the commission is being asked to take today with the LSRD are appropriate nor are they conforming to the original CPC resolution from 1972.” Another commissioner, Anna Levin, said, “I don’t believe the legal situation is as straightforward as our Chair would have it be.”

In a statement earlier today, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said:

Today’s decision to permit the construction of close to 3,000 units of housing – as many housing units as are being produced by neighborhood re-zonings – even though there are significant environmental impacts to schools, open space, transportation and on and on without City Council review undermines the very basic notions of public process laid out in the City Charter and has no precedent. We are deeply disappointed with the Commission’s vote to circumvent ULURP and are exploring legal avenues to correct this mistake.

In a lengthy joint statement, Brewer and Chin added:

Conversations about development and land use are often hidden behind jargon. However, it’s important that we be crystal clear about what the mayor and the City Planning Commission have done today in Two Bridges, an enclave in the Lower East Side characterized by its many working-class, immigrant, and senior residents living in affordable housing built as part of an urban renewal plan. Today, Mayor de Blasio’s City Planning Commission voted to approve three new developments that will overwhelm this neighborhood, over our opposition and that of the neighborhood’s Community Board and its representatives in the State Assembly, State Senate, and Congress. The rules governing these blocks are laid out in the Two Bridges Large-Scale Residential Development Permit. To change these rules or get an exemption from them, you are supposed to go through a full land use review, including input from the Borough President and, ultimately, approval from the City Council. Mayor de Blasio’s City Planning Commission just voted to advance these applications without that review, claiming they are only a ‘minor modification’ to the site. First, this practice of exempting ‘minor modifications’ from the full approval process has no basis in law. There is simply no rule written anywhere that allows this, and we told them that two years ago. Second, there is no universe where these towers could be considered a ‘minor modification’ to what’s allowed now. This so-called ‘minor modification’ would triple the number of apartments in the neighborhood and quadruple the maximum allowable height to over a thousand feet, resulting in a new building that would be the seventh tallest in the entire city, almost as tall as the Chrysler Building. Third, at a June 2017 town hall, the mayor essentially claimed that his administration was legally stuck approving these developments. Even if that were true, which it is not, we gave him a way out, and he could have taken it. On December 29, 2017, we filed a zoning text amendment that would clear up any ambiguity and require a full review for these towers. Nearly a year later, this mayor’s Department of City Planning refuses to even hold a hearing on this proposal, instead demanding the Council and the Borough President’s office waste time and taxpayer dollars jumping through new hoops and red tape. We’re not against any and all development in Two Bridges or anywhere else. But rules either exist or they don’t. This is a neighborhood rezoning’s worth of housing, and it’s a wild departure from what the current rules allow. Two Bridges residents deserve the same rights, the same negotiation, and the same level of investment from the city that the residents of East Harlem, Inwood, Far Rockaway, East New York, Jerome Avenue, and other communities facing neighborhood rezonings are given. The de Blasio Administration’s insistence that these massive towers must move forward without a real review or negotiation is unlawful, and we are exploring all available options to oppose these developments.”

Paula Segal, an attorney for the Community Development Project, spoke on behalf of local residents, who have vowed to sue the city if the towers were approved. “(The Planning Commission) acknowledged the community’s needs and the project’s injustices, but they approved it anyway,” said Segal. “Today’s vote on the megatowers is not a proper approval under the zoning resolution and controlling law. No development can be done based on this vote alone. We are evaluating options for making sure that the property owners follow the law.”

The developers are touting nearly 700 “affordable” apartments to be built as part of the projects and improvements to the East Broadway subway station.  They released a statement, which was published by City Limits:

We appreciate the consideration of the City Planning Commission and feedback from the community on numerous occasions over the past two years. The three proposed projects will deliver lasting and meaningful benefits for the Two Bridges community, including approximately 700 units of permanently affordable housing, funding for essential repairs to the local NYCHA complex, resiliency upgrades for both existing and proposed buildings, an estimated $40 million in upgrades to the East Broadway subway station that will make the station ADA-accessible for the first time, an estimated $15 million in upgrades to three local public parks, and the creation of new public spaces within the LSRD. We look forward to moving ahead with these projects and neighborhood benefits.