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.”

Community Board 3 is Poised to Join ‘Two Bridges’ Rezoning Campaign

Rendering: New towers proposed on the waterfront in the Two Bridges area.

Rendering: New towers proposed on the waterfront in the Two Bridges area.

Community Board 3 is poised to join a local effort to rezone a section of the Two Bridges area, part of a larger campaign to stop three gigantic towers from going up on the waterfront. CB3’s land use committee voted unanimously last night to become a co-applicant of the zoning proposal. The full board is certain to follow the committee’s lead later this month.

The initiative is being led by the Two Bridges resident coalition known as TUFF-LES, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and CAAAV-Organizing Asian Communities. They are working with the Urban Justice Center to move the proposal through the city bureaucracy.

The community board’s support is essential, not just because CB3’s endorsement of the plan will give it credibility with the Department of City Planning. The board’s involvement as a co-applicant also means the city will waive a $500,000 in fees normally required.

At last night’s meeting, City Council member Margaret Chin spoke in favor of the effort.  On Oct. 12, she and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer submitted a request to the city for a zoning text amendment. It would require the developers of the three proposed mega-towers to obtain special permits, which would trigger a full land use review (ULURP) for the sites.

Chin said she’s confident her strategy to “stop these towers from going forward” will succeed, but added, “We need to go further to protect our neighborhood. This is why this community-led effort to rezone the waterfront has my full support and when there is community consensus I am not afraid to take on the administration. So I hope that the proposal discussed today will move forward through the community board, so we can get the protection we need as quickly as possible.”

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In a brief presentation, representatives from the community groups explained what they’re trying to accomplish. Their starting point is the 2014 Chinatown Working Group (CWG) Plan, a community-led initiative that called for rezoning a wide swathe of the Lower East Side and Chinatown.

The local groups are now pulling out a section of the plan, known as Sub-District D, for the potential rezoning. The sub-district covers the waterfront between Catherine Slip all the way up to East 13th St. They’re focused first and foremost on stopping the proposed projects, which include  a 1,008 foot building from JDS Development Group at 247 Cherry St.; 62 and 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. The sites are located in a C6-4 zoning district, which is reserved high-bulk commercial uses and high density housing.

The CWG Plan imposes a 350-foot height cap (35 stories), up to 55% permanent affordable housing in new developments and requires special permits for big box stores and nightlife establishments.

Chinatown Working Group subdistricts.

Chinatown Working Group subdistricts.

Several members of the land use committee voiced skepticism about some of the details, but everyone agreed on the critical need for new zoning on the waterfront. An influential board member, Lisa Kaplan, noted that she opposed the proposal for Sub-District D a couple of years ago. Last night, however, she said, “I’ve changed my mind. I have real reservations about some of the aspects of this (proposal). I think it’s unrealistic. But I think, at this point, we have to be negotiating (with the city)… The proposal on the floor (from the developers) is so outrageous and so out of scale that we have to sit down and we have to be part of a discussion about reconsidering this area.”

Committee members said they want a plan that has a chance of making through the City Planning Commission. They believe this will mean, among other things, reducing the size of Sub-District D and settling for less affordable housing. The applicants said they understood that not every part of the original CWG Plan, which was finalized three years ago, can be implemented.

The community board is expected to sign on as a co-applicant with the understanding that CB3 representatives will be included in negotiation sessions with city officials. If the proposal moves forward, it would be subject to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which includes community board hearings, an advisory opinion from the borough president, approval by the City Planning Commission and a vote in the City Council.

Time is of the essence. Neighborhood rezonings take months (sometimes years) to go through ULURP. The City Planning Commission is now evaluating a joint environmental review of the towers and has been expected to vote on the projects before the end of this year. Rezonings can be implemented even after work begins on building foundations, but the applicants know they must move quickly if they’re going to stop the mega-towers.

In the past, city officials have discouraged any rezoning in the Two Bridges area. Now, however, there appears to be at least some willingness to talk about the issue. A spokesperson at the Department of City Planning told The Lo-Down this afternoon, “If CB3 and local groups request an informational meeting regarding a land use application, DCP will be available.”

The development teams declined to comment on the rezoning proposal. They did, however, have this to say about their projects:

From the outset, and after consultation with the City and elected officials, all three development teams have committed to providing 25 percent of the proposed unit count as permanently affordable housing, which would result in the creation of nearly 700 permanently affordable apartments – one of the largest infusions of affordable housing in Manhattan in recent decades. We fully intend to formalize that commitment before the conclusion of the approval process. We appreciate that the current process has provided multiple opportunities for robust community input, including through four productive feedback sessions and ongoing discussions with neighborhood leaders. We will look forward to continuing that dialogue, and to discussing the substantial upgrades proposed for neighborhood flood resiliency, open space and retail opportunities with local stakeholders as the process moves forward.

Trever Holland, a tenant leader in the Two Bridges area, expressed relief that efforts are now underway to protect the neighborhood. Last night, though, he voiced some frustration that it’s taken so long. Holland, a member of Community Board 3, said he’s begged and pleaded for help on more occasions than he can count. Members of other community boards, he said, ask him, “What is your community board doing right now? If there’s something they could do, why aren’t they doing it?” Holland concluded,  “This is an opportunity for our community board to do something.”

MyPhuong Chung, land use committee chair, apparently did not care for Holland’s comments. Several minutes later, she defended her committee’s efforts on behalf of the Two Bridges neighborhood. “It kind of sounds like we’ve just been sitting on our hands this whole time,” said Chung, “and ignoring this — and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Chung added, “I personally played a part in leading this plan (as a representative on the Chinatown Working Group). So I think it’s irresponsible to paint the land use committee as not caring about this issue. We voted twice and got rejected twice from City Planning (regarding subdistrict D). We did that, I think, at great risk to this community board’s credibility. It’s not that we haven’t tried, but we’re willing to work with you going forward, especially since so many things have changed, even in the last two years since we officially took a vote on this area.”

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A huge crowd turned out last night for the zoning presentation. During a public speaking session, a number of people criticized the community groups for moving forward with a single section of the Chinatown Working Group Plan. There was particular concern about the impact of a rezoning on parcels owned by the New York City Housing Authority. [NYCHA is already moving forward with a new mixed-income tower on a parking lot adjacent to the LaGuardia Houses.]

Over the years, some local activists have labeled any effort to prioritize one section of the community over another “racist” and exclusionary. The city rejected the full plan, calling it too expansive. As a result, the CWG Plan has languished. Interestingly, two of the groups behind the new effort to move ahead with Sub-District D, GOLES and CAAAV, are among those organizations that previously opposed a piecemeal approach.

The community board is trying to move forward with rezoning the other sub-districts. CB3 Chair Jamie Rogers told us today, “We hope to engage the Chinatown community through the Chinatown Neighborhood Planning Subcommittee and are working with DCP to secure a facilitator to help with the committee’s work.” Rogers said the board is also committed to “protecting the NYCHA campuses,” using the guidelines set forth in the Chinatown Working Group Plan. A city spokesperson reiterated today that, “DCP is open to discussions with community and elected officials regarding a planning process for the Chinatown core (an area that is undefined but likely to include the historic heart of Chinatown only).”

Rezoning the Waterfront by The Lo-Down on Scribd

Brewer, Chin Request Zoning Text Amendment to Battle “Two Bridges” Mega-Towers

Brewer and Chin staged a rally in the Two Bridges neighborhood in July.

Brewer and Chin staged a rally in the Two Bridges neighborhood in July.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin have filed a request for a zoning text amendment with the Department of City Planning (DCP) that would, if enacted, make it more difficult for developers to build three mega-towers in the Two Bridges area.

The two elected officials made the request of the city agency on Oct. 12 and announced the move this morning via a press release.

Back in July, Brewer and Chin urged the city to order a full land use review of the projects and threatened to file a lawsuit if DCP refused. The agency previously rejected a request from Chin to subject the massive projects to a ULURP, which would have required City Council approval.  DCP ruled that the buildings amounted to “minor modification” of the Two Bridges Large-Scale Development Plan. The City Planning Commission is now evaluating a joint environmental review to assess potential impacts of the towers, which range in height from 62-79 stories.

According to the press release, “the draft zoning text amendment… would require a new special permit for certain developments in the Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Area, to clarify that large, out-of-scale development proposals are not “minor modifications” to this area’s plan and would require public review.”

In a statement, Brewer said, “I have great respect for the professionals at the Department of City Planning, but when you look at the Two Bridges community and the way these massive towers would loom over it, you can’t help but understand that ‘minor modification’ has lost its meaning and we need clearer rules.”

“Since we first heard about these proposed mega-developments,” said Chin, “Borough President Brewer and I have made our demands clear: we need a real, transparent public review process. This year, we are delivering on the promise we made to the Two Bridges community by using every tool at our disposal to make their voices heard. These out-of-scale buildings threaten to displace hardworking residents, bring forth irreversible environmental hazards, and accelerate gentrification, which would endanger the very fabric of the Two Bridges community.”

In a separate move, Chin has proposed City Council legislation that would allow elected officials who submit land use applications to forego the city”s arduous procedures that must be completed before applications move forward.

Rendering shows Extell's 80-story tower in the Two Bridges area, as well as three proposed towers now under review by the City Planning Commission.

Rendering shows Extell’s 80-story tower in the Two Bridges area, as well as three proposed towers now under review by the City Planning Commission.

The new projects include JDS Development Group’s 1,000-foot tower at 247 Cherry St.; 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. The rental buildings would add around 2,000 apartments to the area — 75% market rate/25% affordable.

As we reported yesterday, resident leaders in the Two Bridges neighborhood, along with the advocacy groups GOLES and CAAAV, are proposing a rezoning in the area to curtail the proposed towers. They’ll make their pitch tomorrow night at Community Board 3’s land use committee.

We have reached out to the Department of City Planning for comment.

A spokesperson for the development teams told us this morning that they would have no comment regarding the Brewer/Chin request for a zoning text amendment. The developers did, however, meet recently with tenant leaders in the Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Area. The developers, tenant leaders tell us, made clear their strong opposition to any changes in the neighborhood’s zoning.

In the recent City Council primary election, Council member Chin faced sharp criticism from her opponents over the Two Bridges development issue. They argued that she only voiced strong opposition to the towers in the final weeks of the campaign. Just yesterday, a group supporting Chin’s chief rival, Christopher Marte, announced plans for a march through the neighborhood on Oct. 25. They are calling on the, “community to unite to unseat City Councilperson Margaret Chin, who has played a key role in robbing the community of its public assets and resources to enrich luxury developers.” An organizer of the march is Tanya Castro-Negron, tenant leader of one of the buildings that would be most impacted by the towers. After narrowly losing in the primary, Marte is challenging Chin in the Nov. 7 general election.