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Local Groups Wait For Developers’ Next Move, as Campaign to Fight Waterfront Towers Inches Forward

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Renderings: New East River waterfront with proposed towers.
Renderings: New East River waterfront with proposed towers.

The environmental review for three mega-towers in the Two Bridges area is several months behind schedule, but most community activists aren’t complaining. The delay is giving them more time to mobilize against the controversial projects. That was one of the takeaways from a meeting of Community Board 3 held earlier this week.

JDS Development Group has proposed a 79-story tower at 247 Cherry St., next door to Extell Development’s 80-story luxury condo complex. L+M Development Partners and the CIM Group want to put up 62 ad 69 story towers at 260 South St. Meanwhile, the Starrett Group is planning a 62-story building at 259 Clinton St. Taken together, they would add 2,700 rental apartments in the area, 25% designated as affordable. The development teams are conducting a joint study to assess impacts of the huge projects on the Two Bridges neighborhood. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was expected to be submitted to the Department of City Planning by December. But it has not yet been filed.

At CB3’s land use committee meeting on Wednesday evening, a representative from the Department of City Planning (DCP) called the delays fairly routine. Community board member Val Jones wanted to know what is taking the developers so long, and speculated that concerns expressed by residents at a series of public meetings held last year were being disregarded. Bob Tuttle, a city planner, said, “There’s a lot of work that (the developers are) doing right now, and (the Environmental Impact Statement) just isn’t ready.” He noted that all comments from the public must be specifically addressed once the official review process begins. Tuttle said he couldn’t say when the Draft EIS would be finished, but emphasized, “I don’t want you to think the process is broken because they haven’t talked to you.”

Brewer and Chin staged a rally in the Two Bridges neighborhood in July of 2017.
Brewer and Chin staged a rally in the Two Bridges neighborhood in July of 2017.

During the meeting, representatives from the offices of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilmember Margaret Chin updated their efforts to constrain the three projects. In January, they filed an application for a zoning text amendment to force the projects to go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The Department of City Planning in 2016 refused to order a ULURP, which would have given the City Council some say over the projects.

Roxanne Early, Chin’s land use and planning director, said conversations are ongoing with DCP staff regarding the text amendment. One question to be resolved: Would a separate environmental review be required? That would be an arduous and lengthy process for the borough president and councilmember to take on.

There was also an update on Tuesday evening regarding a proposed community-led rezoning of the Two Bridges area. In October, Community Board 3 agreed to serve as a co-applicant, along with TUFF-LES (a tenant coalition), Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and CAAAV-Organizing Asian Communities.

The groups have met with representatives of the Department of City Planning about creating a, “Lower East Side/Chinatown Waterfront Special District.” It would include a height limit for new buildings of 350 feet, among other restrictions. While DCP hasn’t indicated one way or the other whether it would support the proposal, City Planning officials did offer some feedback to the local groups. 

One goal of the rezoning would be to require at least 45% affordable housing in new projects, through the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program (MIH). The rezoning envisioned by the local community would only be feasible if the allowable residential floor area is increased, city planners have advised. As a result of this feedback, CB3 is now drafting a letter to DCP that would propose an expansion of residential floor area in Two Bridges, but would retain the 350-foot height cap.

If the rezoning moves forward, it would need to undergo yet another lengthy public review process. The groups are hoping Councilmember Chin and Borough President Brewer sign on as co-applicants. They have expressed general support for the rezoning, but have yet to join forces with the community groups. There was widespread agreement on the land use committee that the delayed environmental review from the development teams is a good thing. It allows both the elected officials and community groups time to advance their own land use proposals.

The environmental review studies 18 categories, including infrastructure, schools, transportation, community facilities and neighborhood character. It also must include “strategies to mitigate” potential impacts of the development projects. The development teams and City Planning officials are going back and forth regarding those mitigations. While the developers have declined to comment, it’s not hard to imagine some of the local improvements they could be called on to fund.

In an interview published a few months ago, Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council speculated about one of the possibilities. His organization, along with Settlement Housing Fund, sold air rights to JDS Development Group for its mega-tower, enraging the local community. In one section of the interview, Papa raved about JDS’s Michael Stern and hinted about potential subway improvements on the Lower east Side:

He’s quiet, unassuming, a wonderful man, understands the plight of low-income communities. Maybe takes advantage of it, it can be seen that way, but also he’s willing to do things here that were never heard of before—the subway system, the F-train stop that he’s willing to have equipped with an elevator or an escalator.

F Train entrance on Henry Street.
F Train entrance on Madison Street.

During last year’s public meetings, community members raised many concerns about the sorry state of the East Broadway subway station. The escalator is frequently out-of-order. The entrances closest to the proposed projects, on Henry Street, aren’t designed to accommodate large crowds. The new developments would add thousands of local residents, overburdening a decaying, outdated station.  Developers have agreed to pay for MTA station improvements in other neighborhoods, so there is a precedent. But upgrading the station would be astronomically expensive and complicated, so any proposal would face a lot of scrutiny from both the public and government agencies.

Through the environmental review process, city officials could mandate certain improvements. Other proposals from the development teams might be designed to woo a skeptical local community and elected officials.

Trever Holland, a tenant leader in the Two Bridges area, told The Lo-Down he is suspicious of enticements from the development teams, in which, “low-income neighborhoods are led to believe that they only way to see any ‘improvements’ in their community is by allowing out-of-scale luxury developers to literally build on top of existing affordable housing.” Holland added, “If the developers are, indeed, listening to the Two Bridges community, they would know that our unanimous voice has clearly stated that the best mitigation is just to leave our community alone. “
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