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Two Bridges Mega Towers: City Council Politics Influences Development Debate

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A rally was held in the Two Bridges neighborhood on July 21.
A rally was held in the Two Bridges neighborhood on July 21.

A Democratic primary in New York City is just about six weeks away, which means there’s more bluster than usual surrounding many big community issues. Election-year politics definitely played a major role July 21 at a rally in the Two Bridges neighborhood.

We already reported on the rally, in which City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer announced they’re prepared to sue if the City Planning Commission approves three huge development projects in the Two Bridges area. Today we’re taking a closer look at the politics around the contentious debate.

The city is now evaluating the proposals, which would add 2,700 mostly market rate apartments along the East River. The projects include JDS Development Group’s 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. A final decision from the city is not expected until well after election day.

In this story, we’re looking at several accusations levied against Council member Chin by her political rivals, and claims made by Chin and Brewer about the developers.

Claim #1: Council member Chin should have prevented the expiration of the Two Bridges Urban Renewal Area

City Council candidate Christopher Marte said in a statement released before the rally, “Our Council member knew when the protective zoning was expiring, and she did not renew it.” Does he have a point?

The Two Bridges Urban Renewal Area extended from Market Street to Montgomery Street along the East River. When the plan expired in 2007, limits on the size of new buildings were lifted. The expiration was apparently not on anyone’s radar at the time, although there was anxiety (and even a boisterous rally) about the possibility of a luxury tower replacing the Cherry Street Pathmark store. While Margaret Chin was a longtime community activist in Chinatown, she was not elected to the City Council until November of 2009. The expiration of the urban renewal area occurred during Council member Alan Gerson’s watch two years earlier.

End of story? Not quite, at least not as far as Chin’s opponents are concerned. While he concedes that Chin was not in office when the urban renewal area expired, Marte says she could have acted to put protective zoning in place at any point in the past seven-and–a-half years. In 2012, Pathmark carried through with its threats to close the store, and developer Gary Barnett purchased the site for $150 million. At about the same time, the HealthCare Chaplaincy was pitching the community board on its plans for a large residential and nursing facility on another parcel in the Two Bridges area. The development pressures in the neighborhood, Marte argues, were apparent to everyone, yet no strategy was put in place to fight the looming development frenzy.

Chin’s supporters note that there were no concrete development plans, only rumors. Earlier this year, Council member Chin introduced legislation that would require the city to notify communities when urban renewal areas are about to expire. “Though we cannot turn back time to prevent the expiration of the Two Bridges URA,” Chin said at the time, “this legislation is integral to my mission to keep similar situations from happening again, and to carry on the fight by continuing to demand a full public review, including an up-or-down City Council vote, on the mega-towers at Two Bridges.”

Margaret Chin addressed Chinatown Working Group members shortly after her election in 2009.
Margaret Chin addressed Chinatown Working Group members in 2010.

Claim #2: Enactment of the full Chinatown Working Group Plan could have saved Two Bridges from over-development

Challengers in District 1, especially candidate Dashia Imperiale, have accused Chin of failing to support the full Chinatown Working Group Plan, which called for a rezoning across a large swathe of Lower Manhattan.

The CWG coalition, at one point boasting more than 50 member groups, began meeting in 2008 to create a master plan for protecting Chinatown from over-development and gentrification. Along the way, members dropped out, there were fierce battles among rival organizations and many starts-and-stops. Finally, in January of 2014, the Chinatown Working Group came out with a proposal that called for rezoning the historic core of Chinatown, but also the Two Bridges area and large sections of the Lower East Side. In February of 2015, the plan was rejected by the Department of City Planning, which called the proposal too expansive. City officials criticized its, “aggressive across-the-board height limits,” while leaving the door slightly open to a more limited rezoning. Two years later, Community Board 3 has finally convened a new subcommittee to resume work on the proposal. It has the support of Council member Chin.

All elected officials, not only Chin, steered clear of the Chinatown Working Group while members were debating their plan, saying they wanted the community process to run its course. Once the deliberations ended, however, longtime opponents of Council member Chin unloaded on her, calling attempts to focus on smaller areas of Chinatown for rezoning racist and exclusionary. Chin was supportive of a piecemeal approach, suggesting that an “all-or-nothing” strategy was unrealistic and counter-productive.

Supporters of Council member Chin point out that any proposal floated over the years to focus on one section of the neighborhood, such as Two Bridges, has been denounced in the strongest terms by some local activists. So while in theory the Chinatown Working Group Plan could have led to a downzoning along the waterfront, the Chin team argues, city opposition and the refusal within the community to compromise, made it impossible. They also emphasize the Council member’s responsibility as an elected representative to get what she can for her community, even if it frustrates some constituents who want more.

The Council member’s opponents believe, however, that she almost always acquiesces to city officials and developers too easily, and that Chin should have fought harder for the full plan.

Rendering of proposed tower at 247 Cherry St., SHoP Architects.
Rendering of proposed tower at 247 Cherry St., SHoP Architects.

Claim #3: Developers have failed to provide adequate information about the displacement of senior residents during construction

A press release from Council member Chin and Borough President Brewer renewed criticism of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and Settlement Housing Fund for, “attempting to reach a secret agreement with HUD to displace seniors (at 80 Rutgers Slip) to clear the way for luxury development.” At the rally, Chin said, “Today we still don’t know how many of them will have to be relocated or where they will even go if one of the proposed towers is built on top of them.” Brewer added, “We keep asking, and asking, and asking,” yet there are no answers. 

The two not-for-profit groups operate the senior building and sold a development parcel and air rights to JDS Development Group. Early this year, The Lo-Down obtained correspondence through a Freedom of Information Act request, showing the organizations’ preliminary plan. It stated that the new project, to be built over the senior complex, could lead to the displacement of up to 19 residents. The elected officials say they were completely in the dark about the groups’ overtures to HUD.

Following the rally, representatives of the development team and Two Bridges Neighborhood Council told us that they’re not trying to conceal anything from the elected officials or the community. They say the construction plan has not been finalized and they do not yet know exactly how many tenants will be displaced. A firm has been hired, they note, to work directly with residents, and any changes at 80 Rutgers Slip must go through a rigorous regulatory process, mandated by HUD.

Months after we published the letters to and from HUD, this much is clear: the revelations created an atmosphere of mistrust between the development team and local elected officials, and convinced many in the community that the process is totally lacking in transparency.

Two Bridges environmental review meeting, Jan. 18.
Two Bridges environmental review meeting, Jan. 18.

Claim #4: A community task force disintegrated because the development teams walked way from the table

Last summer, the City Planning Commission rejected Council member Chin’s request for a full land use review (ULURP), which would have required approval of development plans by the City Council. The consolation prize was an “enhanced environmental review (EIS),” essentially four public meetings to discuss the impact of the new buildings on mass transit, roads, schools, etc. As we reported last December, Chin and Brewer assembled a community task force, which included resident leaders and representatives from the development teams. At last month’s rally, Brewer said of the community engagement efforts, “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.”

No doubt about it: that January 18 meeting was heated, and it ultimately led the developers to rethink their participation in the “enhanced EIS.” But the development partners say they never wavered from engaging with the community.

As the meeting got underway, residents rose from their chairs, protest signs in hand, and denounced the projects and the community engagement process. They demanded a delay in the proceedings to give resident leaders more time for meaningful community outreach (the developers later rejected that request). Many people walked out of the room, refusing to take part in small group brainstorming sessions organized by Karp Strategies, a planning firm working for the developers.

The development teams have pointed out that their involvement in the public meetings and task force was voluntary. While they decided against attending future task force meetings, developer representatives have continued to meet with residents to talk through various issues, and intend to hold more meetings in the future. They also went ahead with two scheduled public meetings in March and June. Questions and answers from all of the public sessions have been posted online.  Detailed reports from Karp Strategies included comments from locals intent on stopping the plans from going forward.

The task force meetings were closed to the public, so we have no direct knowledge of what transpired. We did, however, speak with a number of participants, all of whom concede the deliberations were fraught. Margaret Chin and Gale Brewer were listed on task force membership rosters as co-chairs. Residents tell us they unsuccessfully lobbied for top leadership roles within the group. Karp Strategies played a major role in shaping the meetings, residents say, and this was a point of contention. Ultimately, tenant leaders came to believe that the meetings were designed to fast-track the proposals, and that there was no real opportunity for the community to change the development plans in any meaningful way. Making matters worse was the fact that tenant representatives were not always in agreement on strategy.  At the city’s official EIS scoping hearing in May, the task force failed to deliver a joint statement detailing the community’s priorities.

So when Brewer says the task force broke down because the developers walked away, she is partially correct. It’s tough to have a negotiation with a party who is not at the table. In the end, some participants concluded that the development teams were unprepared to cope with the messiness of a community process, in an environment they could not control. At the same time, however, the group was clearly dysfunctional, and members were dealing with their own organizational issues that had nothing to do with the developers.

Maureen Koetz and Lower East Side Organizing Neighbors held a media event on Cherry Street  May 11.
Maureen Koetz and Lower East Side Organizing Neighbors held a media event on Cherry Street May 11.

Claim #5: Elected officials waited too long to make a strong stand

At the rally, Chin and Brewer called on the Department of City Planning to reject the development schemes in their current form and to order a ULURP in the Two Bridges area. If these things don’t happen, the elected officials say they’re prepared to file a lawsuit to block the projects.

Back in May, a new group called Lower East Side Organizing Neighbors (LESON) talked about suing the city. In a press statement following the July rally, the LESON group blasted Chin, Brewer and Mayor de Blasio, writing, “We know this is an election year (and) that’s why they are putting on a show. We have seen these tactics many times in the past where they divert attention away from real community-led solutions.”

What “community-led solutions” do they have in mind? In an interview just this morning, LESON’s attorney, Maureen Koetz, told us she’s not contemplating a suit right now. Koetz’s priority is making sure city agencies follow the law. City officials contend no new waivers or special permits are required for the mega-towers. Koetz believes they are wrong. She says no new building can occur in the Two Bridges LSRD (a large-scale development area) unless the city shows there will be no negative impacts on the existing community.

The elected officials have been vague about a potential lawsuit. The City Planning Commission is not likely to vote on the projects until late this year. The plan, being developed with non-profit legal groups, is to file an Article 78 challenge, which is used to fight official decisions from government agencies.  They wouldn’t be able to act until after the final environmental review is published and the planning commission makes its decision.  Koetz may have been first to discuss in public a challenge to City Planning’s interpretation of the zoning code, but it’s also an argument advanced by Community Board 3 in its comments at the May scoping meeting.

During a June 21 town hall meeting on the Lower East Side, the mayor said he sees no legal way to stop the proposed towers. Council member Chin challenged him about that, saying,  “We’ve got to find a way (to stop or change the projects).”  Even if there are long odds in court, at least some tenant leaders are relieved that the elected officials are now taking a more forceful stand. They wish more had been done earlier, but are mostly hopeful that something can be done now to stop, or at least reduce the scale, of the projects. Chin’s supporters say her new approach is not a case of, “too little, too late.” Once the city rejected her ULURP request and developers agreed to the expanded environmental review, elected officials were obligated to give the process a chance. That’s now run its course, they argue, clearing the way for a more assertive stance.

So this story ends where it began. Margaret Chin’s supporters say she is fully committed to working with the community, but also focused on attainable results in the Two Bridges neighborhood. Chin’s detractors, meanwhile, insist her advocacy for the community has been far too tepid. This is the debate that will be front-and center during the six weeks that remain before the Democratic Primary in District 1.

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