Three large-scale development projects in the Two Bridges area are expected to add more than 2,000 luxury apartments in a traditionally low-income community. So in an upcoming environmental study, local activists consider it critically important to analyze the impact of the new buildings on rent regulated apartments. The problem, however is this: there are no plans to evaluate in a comprehensive way how the Lower East Side’s affordable housing stock will be affected by the luxury towers.
At a meeting of Community Board 3 last week, land use committee members discussed how to deal with this issue, as well as other perceived shortcomings in a Draft Scoping Document (a plan detailing what specifically will be studied). The board will submit comments regarding the document at a public hearing May 25.
A joint environmental review will be conducted for the projects, which include a 79-story tower at 247 Cherry St. from JDS Development Group; 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 developers have filed requests with the Department of City Planning for a “minor modification” of the Two Bridges Large-Scale Residential Development Plan (first approved in 1970). While all of their buildings are allowed under current zoning, they require the city to lift limits on floor area permitted under the plan.
An organization called the Collective for Community, Culture and Environment has been working to fight the towers with the leaders of local tenant organizations and GOLES, the neighborhood preservation, group. The planners are suggesting that the proposals may go well beyond minor modifications and could actually qualify as a neighborhood rezoning. They also plan to challenge city rules which prevent a detailed study of rent stabilized housing. As it stands, the environmental review will only look comprehensively at market rate housing.
While the tenant groups were engaging an urban planning collective, the community board also hired a planning consultant to offer expert advice. George Janes previously worked with CB6 and CB11, and has now been asked to help the Lower East Side board shape its response to the draft scope. In brief remarks at least week’s meeting, Janes noted that the new plans total more than 2.2 million square feet. “It is very significant in terms of scale,” said Janes, adding that he believes the community has “some leverage.” Since any increase in floor area must be approved by the City Planning Commission and since the large-scale residential development plan has been in place for 45 years, Janes argued, “there is a good argument to have a lower scale alternative to be studied.” At the moment, the environmental review will look at only two options: the developers’ plan and a “no action” scenario.
Some committee members cautioned against giving residents false hope about upending the developers’ plans. Damaris Reyes, executive director of GOLES, said, “I’m not one to downplay a fight and leverage, because I believe power concedes nothing without demand, but I just want folks to be clear.” These types of proposals, she added, are almost always approved by the city. “Where we will find our leverage,” argued Reyes, “will be in what we get studied and what those mitigations (remedies to the developments’ adverse impacts) are.” Tim Laughlin, president of the LES Partnership agreed, saying, “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to stop the minor modification.”
Committee member Lisa Kaplan said one of her biggest concerns is that the study area is too small (it’s only a quarter-mile around the development sites). The projects, she said, are “going to have an impact on the affordability of this neighborhood (well beyond the Two Bridges area).”
In the environmental review, there are 18 different categories that will be evaluated. At the meeting, committee members went around the table, highlighting their top issues. These included: the condition and accessibility of the F Train station on East Broadway/Madison Street, the lack of MTA bus service, pedestrian and cyclist safety on surrounding streets, school overcrowding, flood protection measures along the East River, availability of food stores, the lack of a full-service hospital and other medical facilities, the potential displacement of small businesses and the diminishment of light and air due to the new towers. Another concern: the potential for harassment of longtime residents due to increased police protection in the area.
During a public speaking session, several residents and housing activists were given an opportunity to talk about their own concerns. Daisy Echevarria, a tenant leader at 275 South St., said, “these monstrous-sized buildings should never have been allowed,” pointing out that the city rejected a request for a sweeping rezoning of Chinatown and the Lower East Side in 2015 (a smaller scale rezoning is still potentially on the table). The Department of City Planning, she asserted, only seems concerned with making zoning changes to benefit developers, not communities. “Mayor de Blasio keeps allowing developers to build luxury high rises for a paltry number of affordable apartments,” said Echevarria.
Another tenant leader, Marc Richardson, said his biggest worry about the projects is that they will more than double the number of apartments in a two block stretch of the East River. Since these apartments will be 75% market rate, the Two Bridges area will be transformed, and not necessarily to the liking of the existing the community. “I’m most concerned about changing the character and demographics of the neighborhood,” said Richardson.
Melanie Wong, who works for the advocacy group CAAAV, argued that the environmental study should include an evaluation of lost rent stabilized housing in the neighborhood during the past 5-10 years. Trever Holland, tenant president at Two Bridges Tower, called for a detailed plan to accommodate several senior residents who will be displaced from 80 Rutgers Slip.
Another local tenant leader, Aaron Gonzalez, said he’s convinced landlords will raise rents on area businesses serving low- and middle-income residents. He concluded, “these monstrous behemoths rising with their shiny exteriors are nothing but a facade. What lurks under the skin is the beginning of the erosion of our neighborhood character.”
The development teams have pledged to work with community leaders to soften the impact of their projects. One-quarter of the apartments in each tower will be set aside for affordable housing. This past winter, they conducted a series of public forums ahead of the environmental review. On a website set up by the developers, they have provided answers to many of the questions raised at these events.
In one of the meetings, they were asked whether the environmental review would, “study the potential for displacement of tenants in rent-protected units due to harassment” and whether “landlords will be incentivized to harass tenants” due to rising rents in the neighborhood. They responded that both city and state agencies, “administer measures against tenant harassment and, in severe cases, provide strong penalties for tenant harassment and illegal eviction.” As for concerns that the impact on rent stabilized housing won’t be thoroughly evaluated, they said the environmental review will, “identify the populations that are most at risk of displacement…”
The community board will resume discussions about the Two Bridges scoping document next month. In the meantime, tenant leaders and the offices of elected officials are conducting a survey to reach community members who might not have attended previous public meetings.