Could Rezoning Block Two Bridges Mega Towers? Unlikely, Some Community Leaders Say

extell construction site
Extell Development is building an 80-story luxury condo tower on Cherry Street.

The Two Bridges area is already a major construction zone. As Extell Development’s 80-story luxury tower rises on Cherry Street, at least three more large-scale projects have been added to the drawing board.  In recent weeks, local residents have begun asking whether there’s anything that can be done to block the powerful real estate interests that are descending on the neighborhood.

The development bonanza was a main topic of last week’s meeting of Community Board 3’s land use committee. Some community activists are pushing to fast-track sweeping zoning proposals from the Chinatown Working Group, a neighborhood planning coalition formed eight years ago. They believe the plan, which calls for height limits along the waterfront, is their best hope of protecting the neighborhood from over-development.

cwg map
Chinatown Working Group plan broke proposed special zoning district into several subdistricts.

In February of 2015, the city’s Planning Commission rejected the Chinatown Working Group proposal, calling it too expansive. As we noted earlier this month, Community Board 3 recently followed up with a more targeted pitch, offering to focus first on the historic core of Chinatown, the waterfront and the public housing campuses of the Lower East Side. At last week’s meeting, CB3 Chair Gigi Li announced that the planning commission responded in a June 7 letter, agreeing to meet with community board members. Carl Weisbrod, director of the Department of City Planning, wrote:

I am pleased to see that Community Board 3 has committed to taking a focused look at the Chinatown Working Group proposal. I would like to reiterate that we share many of the same goals for Chinatown, particularly the preservation and development of affordable housing. We are hopeful that with a more focused look – one that is specific to Chinatown – we can accomplish these and other important planning goals for the neighborhood.

The Chinatown Working Group’s grand plan covered a large swathe of the Lower East Side, as you can see in the map posted above. The proposed special zoning district was divided into sub-districts. While Weisbrod was not specific, it is assumed that his offer to look at a plan “specific to Chinatown” means Subdistrict A only, and not the waterfront area (Subdistrict D).

247 Cherry St. (right) alongside Extell's One Manhattan Square. Rendering by SHoP Architects.
247 Cherry St. (right) alongside Extell’s One Manhattan Square. Rendering by SHoP Architects.

Concerns about mega-towers in the Two Bridges neighborhood boiled over after JDS Development Group announced in April that it intends to build a one-thousand-foot tower at 247 Cherry St., next door to Extell’s development site. Large-scale plans are also in-the-works for adjacent sites along the East River.

Chairperson Li told community board members, “I’m not convinced that pursuing rezoning of the waterfront would prevent any of the buildings that are already being discussed.” One reason why: community-driven rezonings do not happen quickly; they take a minimum of two years.

Trever Holland, a member of CB3 and a tenant leader in the Two Bridges area, said the community board needs to try harder to fight the plans. Referring to members of the land use committee, he said, “There are some creative minds up here… We need to think of something (even if it’s simply approving a statement in opposition to the towers).”

As we first reported, City Council member Margaret Chin wants the changes being proposed in the area to be considered a “major modification” of the Two Bridges Large-Scale Development Plan. She’s made that request of the Department of City Planning. If the agency agrees, it would result in a ULURP for the Two Bridges area, with required consultations with the community board, borough president and approval by the City Council. A spokesperson for Chin previously told us she sees the the request for a ULURP and the Chinatown Working Group plan as two separate initiatives.

Another community board member, Damaris Reyes, quizzed a representative from Chin’s office about the Council member’s commitment to the Chinatown Working Group’s full vision. Reyes is executive director of GOLES, a housing advocacy group already on the record in opposition to JDS Development Group’s tower. “A lot of people from this community and lots of groups,” she said, “worked for a really long time to do a comprehensive plan, not just the core of Chinatown.”

Reyes asked Roxanne Earley, Chin’s director of land use and planning, whether the Council member has an opinion on the city Planning Commission’s decision to only address the “Chinatown core.” Earley responded by saying that Chin is “very concerned about development and change all over the neighborhood and all throughout the district.” She added that the three new Two Bridges projects pose an immediate concern, suggesting that rezoning is not necessarily the answer to the neighborhood’s most pressing worries.

When pressed further by Reyes, Earley added, “We have to engage in conversations where we can get agency buy-in.” Once at the negotiating table, Earley explained, Council member Chin is hopeful the city will adopt more of the Chinatown Working Group’s vision. Reyes emphasized the importance of presenting a united front. “We’re going to count on our elected officials,” she said, “who we believe care about our community, to stand with us as we push forward… Otherwise, we’re spinning our wheels, we’re wasting our time.”

Since Weisbrod sent his letter to Gigi Li, a meeting has been scheduled to discuss the Chinatown zoning plans. Li will be attending, along with representatives from the Chin’s office and the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. It’s happening before the end of this month, although the exact day and time have not been disclosed.

Li said she’s been talking with representatives of JDS Development Group about two appearances before Community Board 3 in the coming months. In September, they’ll provide an informational briefing on their Cherry Street tower. Then sometime before the end of the year, the developers will return to present either a “minor modification” or a “major modification” of Two Bridges Large-Scale Development Plan.

As for Chin’s request of City Planning, a spokesperson told us yesterday that a letter has been sent to officially request a ULURP on the proposed development sites. Other elected officials signed on to the letter. Chin is awaiting a response from the city.

Meanwhile, it should be another dramatic night at Community Board 3’s monthly meeting this coming Tuesday evening.  Last month, community activists demanded that CB3 sign a pledge to push for full implementation of the Chinatown Working Group plan. They’re going to show up again next week. Incidentally, it’s Gigi Li’s last board meeting before stepping down as chair (community board rules prevent her from running for a fifth term). She’s running in the upcoming Democratic Primary in the 65th Assembly District.