At a rally held on Friday morning, City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer threatened legal action if the City Planning Commission approves three large-scale development projects in the Two Bridges area.
A joint environmental review is now underway for the towers, which would range in height from 62-79 stories and add around 2,000 mostly market rate apartments in the historically low-income area. Residents have been fighting the projects for months. Since the buildings would all be located in the Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Development (LSRD) area, the Planning Commission must give its approval. Last summer, city officials rejected a request from Council member Chin for a full land use review (ULURP) in the Two Bridges neighborhood. A ULURP would have given the City Council leverage over the proposals.
The rally took place in front of 82 Rutgers Slip, a senior building that will bear the brunt of one of the developments, a 79-story tower from JDS Development Group. The project would be built over the low-income senior complex and could displace up to 20 senior residents. [Developers have said the residents will be relocated in the immediate area.]
Chin and Brewer gathered with other elected officials, including Public Advocate Letitia James and State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, as well as tenant leaders and local tenant advocates. In her remarks, the Council member said, “These monstrosities will threaten the very character of this neighborhood… We are here to remind the administration and the developers that these projects are not a done deal.”
“To the members of the City Planning Commission,” Chin added, “we have a simple message: If you rule against this community, we will use every tool at our disposal to make sure the voices of the people are heard.” While she did not specifically mention a lawsuit in her remarks, a press release from Chin’s office threatened, “legal action against the Administration” if the projects are approved in their current form.
The projects include the JDS 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. City Planning decided a ULURP was not called for because the developments would have required, in urban planning speak, only a “minor modification,” rather than a “major modification,” of the LSRD Plan. The review does not include One Manhattan Square, the 80-story luxury condo tower well on its way to completion on the former Cherry Street Pathmark site.
Both Chin and Brewer worked with the development teams and local residents on a series of public meetings and organized a community task force to help shape the environmental review. But that collaboration ended badly earlier this year. On Friday, Brewer explained, “We gave it a chance, we worked with the wonderful tenant leaders, we worked with the task force. It broke down when the developers refused to meet with the task force following a difficult community meeting.”
“We are now calling on City Planning to get this right, to reconsider the incorrect decision they made,” said Brewer. “We’re both stating, for the record, we’re willing to do what it takes, to support legal action if we have to. This is not an outrageous request.”
Assembly member Niou said, “Our message is clear. These luxury towers do not belong on the Lower East Side. The community has long opposed them and the city must reject plans to develop them.” In a statement, State Sen. Daniel Squadron added, “The massive development proposals in the Two Bridges neighborhood would come with massive impact on the community — and yet the community’s role is massively insufficient.”
When it was her turn at the podium, Public Advocate Letitia James urged unity. “All of us should be of one accord,” said James. “There should not be any space between us, because if they see space, they will take advantage of that… I’ve been to too many events where the community has been divided and the developers win.”
Almost all community activists agree that the towers must be stopped, or at least downsized. In an election year, however, with Council member Chin battling for a third term against three outspoken rivals, the community is definitely not speaking with one voice.
Back in May, a new group, Lower East Side Organizing Neighbors (LESON), announced it planned to file a lawsuit against the city over the Two Bridges projects, and blasted the Chin/Brewer approach as too developer friendly. A member of the organization, Tanya Castro-Negron, spoke on Friday in her capacity as tenant president of Lands End II, one of the developments that would be most affected by the new towers. “Yes, we stand behind our leaders,” said Castro-Negron. “We stand behind our elected officials, who with transparency, speak with us.” She went on to complain, however, that community members have been prevented from speaking out in the past, particularly during environmental review meetings. She asked, “Will you allow the people of the community to speak in this process?” In a separate statement, LESON criticized Chin and Brewer for failing to followup after meeting with group members in May and June.
A City Council candidate, Dashia Imperiale, then interjected, asking why the threat of a lawsuit against the city is only being mentioned now. As City Council aides brought the rally to an abrupt end, Imperiale shouted, “This is a sham!… Shame on you!” A few hours earlier, Christopher Marte, another candidate for the District 1 seat released a statement that read, in part, “Margaret Chin’s attempt to take a stand against the waterfront developments is too little, too late.”
Imperiale, Marte and a third candidate, Aaron Foldenauer, stood should-to-shoulder on the sidewalk to make their case against the incumbent. “If Margaret Chin really wanted to do something about this,” said Foledenauer, “she would have acted years ago, not just two months prior to a hotly contested election.”
In a statement following the rally, a spokesperson for Council member Chin fired back. Marian Guerra, Chin’s director of communications, responded specifically to the complaints that community voices were silenced during environmental review meetings. “The EIS process given to the community instead of a ULURP,” said Guerra, “is led by the developer and the Department of City Planning. Neither Council Member Chin nor Borough President Brewer have control over this process, and they had zero say about how the developers ran their meetings.” The statement went on to say, “the harmful notion that this community action (to demand a ULURP) is ‘too little, too late’ is exactly what is discouraging the community from coming together to fight back.”
On Friday, we contacted the Department of City Planning about Chin and Brewer’s demands. Here’s the statement we were provided:
The City must follow the law. While the modifications sought for the Two Bridges sites do not trigger ULURP – in other words no new density or waivers are needed –a thorough environmental review which offers multiple opportunities for the public and elected officials to participate is being conducted. Moreover we are ensuring a coordinated review by the project applicants that looks at the cumulative effects of these three developments at the same time — an extraordinary but important measure that is not ordinarily required. This coordinated review will help produce the best possible outcome for this neighborhood. Much as we appreciate the desire of the community to do so, there are no grounds under which a ULURP could legally be required in this instance.
It should be noted that Mayor de Blasio heard a direct appeal from community members about the mega-towers during a June 21 town hall meeting on the Lower East Side. During that event, Two Bridges tenant leader Trever Holland asked why the city would forego a ULURP, given the massive size and impact of the proposed projects.
In his answer, the mayor contended that previous administrations were to blame for approving land use plans in the Two Bridges area long ago. Referring to the new projects, de Blasio said, “We do not believe… we can just turn it off. I’m just being real with you. We believe it is legally moving forward.” Council member Chin, who moderated the town hall, chimed in, telling the mayor, “I really disagree with the administration. Every time I look at those proposed towers, it really makes me sick to my stomach.” She added, “We can not allow it to happen. We’ve got to find a way (to stop or change the projects), and I’m looking for a way to push back.”
The mayor responded, “Once a development plan is locked in place by law, it’s not easy to undo it. I’ve got to be clear about this.” He said the city hoped to address the concerns about over-development in the Two Bridges area by “maximizing the affordability” of the new buildings. His administration announced that 25% of the apartments in the three developments would be made available to families earning 60% of Area Median Income (AMI). Another 10% will be set aside for families earning 40% of AMI.
The City Planning Commission will likely not vote on the Two Bridges projects until close to the end of this year.