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Development Frenzy Leads to Pleas For Master Plan in Two Bridges Area

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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.

In response to a wave of new large-scale development projects, local Council member Margaret Chin and others are calling on the city to set in motion a master planning initiative for the Two Bridges community.

On the waterfront, Extell Development is building an 80-story luxury condo tower. In late April, JDS Development Group announced plans for a 77-story rental tower on a neighboring parcel. And as we first reported last month, two more big projects are in the works. L+M Development and the CIM Group (Two Bridges Associates) envision a residential complex on a lot adjacent to 265-275 Cherry St. and Starrett Corp. is looking to build on a parcel it owns alongside the East River.

Council member Chin has advised the Department of City Planning that she’ll be requesting what’s known as a “major modification” of the Two Bridges Large-Scale Development Plan. It would trigger a ULURP, which requires review by the local community board, the borough president and approval by the City Council. It also mandates an environmental review.

Locals are reeling from news of development in their neighborhood that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. There’s been shock about the scale of the proposed projects but also concern about the lack of adequate infrastructure (including transportation and schools) to cope with an influx of several thousand new residents.

According to a spokesperson, Council member Chin will argue that all of the sites should be considered together.  ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), she argues, would help ensure that the long-neglected neighborhood receives the resources it needs for the future.

Other elected officials are keeping a close eye on the Two Bridges area. “Considering the history of the sites and the significant proposed development in the area,” said State Sen. Daniel Squadron, “I share the community’s serious concerns about these proposals.”  Newly elected Assemblywoman Alice Cancel met with residents this past Friday Friday, later telling us, “the community is in an uproar” and adding that development in the neighborhood is “out of control.” Cancel said she is calling for an emergency meeting with other Lower East Side leaders to come up with a plan to, at least temporarily, stop the new projects.

Rendering of proposed tower at 247 Cherry St., as shown at a late April community meeting. SHoP Architects.
Rendering of proposed tower at 247 Cherry St., as shown at a late April community meeting. SHoP Architects.
Diagram from preliminary city filing shows scale of project at 247 Cherry St.
Diagram from preliminary city filing shows scale of project at 247 Cherry St.

Since the JDS project (a joint venture with SHoP Architects) is the only one that’s been publicly revealed, it’s attracted most of the fire. The approximately one-thousand foot tower at 247 Cherry St. would be cantilevered over portions of the old Pathmark pharmacy property and a low-income senior housing building. The mixed residential and commercial complex is to be built on land previously owned by the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and Settlement Housing Fund.  The two not-for-profit groups have been battling in court during the past couple of years with another developer, Little Cherry, LLC, which also wants to build on the site.

Representatives of Little Cherry took part in that meeting last week coordinated by Assemblywoman Cancel. We spoke yesterday with principal Roy Schoenberg and with Michael Kramer, director of real estate.  They’re confident of ultimately prevailing in court, winning the right to develop the Two Bridges parcel. Kramer said the goal is to build a 47-story project that is “more harmonious with the community. that includes affordable housing but that it not too tall.” They also endorsed the idea of a master plan for the neighborhood.

Little Cherry and Extell Development hold long-term commercial leases in parts of the former pharmacy building. In the past, Extell executives have indicated they’d also like the opportunity to develop the parcel. George Arzt, a spokesperson for the firm, said Extell was in the dark about JDS’s Development’s plans. “No one has reached out to us,” said Arzt. “From what we’ve seen in the paper and blogs, we have some serious concerns about the project.”

As for JDS Development Group, a spokesperson declined to comment regarding Council member Chin’s request of City Planning. There’s been talk that the real estate firms planning projects in the area might come together to coordinate efforts and work on infrastructure issues. On this point, the spokesperson said, “These are three independent projects. If it makes sense to work together to address community or infrastructure needs, we would be open to exploring that possibility.”

Extell's construction site on Cherry Street.
Extell’s construction site on Cherry Street.

Residents living in neighboring buildings are making their own case for a Two Bridges master plan. Trever Holland, tenant association president at Two Bridges Tower said, “We have concerns about all of the buildings which are proposed because there’s no way this community can support 3,500-4,000 new apartments without proper city planning and without community involvement.” Holland said he’d like to know from local elected officials about how they see the new projects. “I can’t imagine they want more mega-towers in the Two Bridges neighborhood,” he added.

Other neighborhood leaders are also weighing in on the looming development boom. At Lands End II, where a parking lot is being primed for development, the tenant association is lamenting the “restructuring” of the “waterfront for the wealthy.” In a statement, the executive board asked of community-based organizations and elected officials, “How will you now protect us from these luxury towers moving into our neighborhoods, taking our parking lots… our beautiful scenery that now will be given to those who have the right amount of money and (how will you protect) the essence of our multicultural community that can never be replaced?”

Nancy Ortiz, tenant leader at the Vladeck Houses, criticized community outreach efforts for the JDS tower. “I feel this project was not inclusive nor transparent with the community as a whole,” she said. Ortiz added, “This community presently is over saturated with construction projects, yet it has limited resources, in transit, medical, educational programs and affordable food services.” Similar sentiments were expressed by another prominent tenant leader, Aixa Torres of the Alfred E. Smith Houses.

Victor Papa, president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council has been dealing with the backlash over the development deal for the past six weeks. In an interview yesterday, he called on Lower East Side residents to look at the “big picture.”

In his view, the agreement with JDS Development Group includes many benefits for the local community. In addition to 150 affordable apartments (25% of the total), the real estate firm will be renovating the neighboring senior housing building, adding desperately needed local retail and installing flood protection systems. But in a broader sense, Papa said, there’s no getting around the fact that the neighborhood is changing. “It can’t be stopped,” he warned, “and it’s naive to think otherwise.” Papa argued that Two Bridges Neighborhood Council is fulfilling its obligation to envision a new future. By the time all of the projects are complete, he predicted, 800 units of affordable housing could be created by market rate developers.

JDS has been planning to go before Community Board 3, voluntarily, to discuss its plans. Papa believes the current framework will actually lead to more amenities for the neighborhood, as opposed to a full ULURP, which is a more regimented process. As for the Little Cherry court battle, Papa is convinced that the deal with JDS is legally sound. Besides, he said, it’s clear to him that the new plan is a far better deal for the community than the original arrangement with Roy Schoenberg’s company. He thinks the state attorney general, who must approve the deal, will agree.

During the past several years, community activists have advocated for height limits in the Two Bridges area.  They also called for 50% guaranteed affordable housing in new developments. The proposal was part of a rezoning plan presented to the city by the Chinatown Working Group. In the past, city planning officials dismissed the overall rezoning initiative as too broad.  Earlier this month, Community Board 3 submitted a more targeted plan to the Department of City Planning that included the Two Bridges neighborhood. The board is requesting a meeting with city officials to discuss the new proposal.

A spokesperson told us yesterday that the Department of City Planning values the work that CB3 has done to evaluate the Chinatown Working Group proposals. The agency has received the community board letter and intends to follow up, the spokesperson explained.  Meanwhile, CB3’s land use committee will take up the Chinatown Working Group issue tomorrow evening. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at University Settlement, 273 Bowery.

For her part, Council member Chin views the ULURP request she’s submitting and the Chinatown Working Group plans as separate initiatives. Her letter to the city, expected in the next few days, will not include a call for rezoning the neighborhood.

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