OPINION: Architecture of hell on the Lower East Side

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | Among the many horrors of overdevelopment we face in Lower Manhattan, the most heartbreaking has to be the vision of a dystopic future seen in the renderings of a series of projects slated for Two Bridges. These megaprojects would radically and irrevocably alter this Lower East Side neighborhood along the East River, between the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges.

One tower is already up, four more are to come. You know the drill: They are over-scaled, corporate, anonymous and painful to look at. And they’re packed to the gills with private amenities designed to allow the wealthy to separate themselves from the rest of us 24/7, 365 days a year.

Three new megatower developments — with a total of four actual towers — are slated for the Two Bridges area. The copper-colored building closest to the Manhattan Bridge has already been erected and finishing construction on it is currently being done.

These towers will do nothing to alleviate the housing shortage for those at the bottom of the housing market. That’s because the projects’ displacement effects will dwarf the number of moderate-income units that come baked into the deal. So, is it worth it? No way.

It’s a great unmeasurable folly to limit our judgment of such monster projects to the number of pretend “affordable” housing units they create.

It is just and normal to also judge these projects on other criteria: the civic values they embody, the degree to which they enrich an oligarchic developer class, the livability and joys of the neighborhood that are destroyed versus created, the superior alternatives foregone, the shadows these behemoths cast, and the pleasure or pain they give our eyes when we gaze upon them.

When all is done, is what we lose worth more than what we gain, factoring in all those intangibles that cannot be priced, like sunlight?

These towers fail on all counts and portend a terrible future for New York: oligarchic, dark, anti-urban, turned inward, with the wealthy getting around in armored SUVs at ground level, and flying around from private helipads the rest of the time, serviced by Amazon drones right to their private, terraced parks 40 stories up. Another injustice is that the architects and developers of these Lower East Side sites made a terrible mess that they inflict on us, and then they all make out like bandits! For the rest of us there will be less than nothing: blockage of views to the river, shadows, residential displacement and no direct sunlight at street level all day long, all year-round. That is already the case for many of the streets in Midtown already, so why keep repeating that mistake?

These glassy tower complexes, just like at Hudson Yards, like Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, Essex Crossing, Domino Sugar Factory, Sunnyside, East Harlem and Yorkville are the architecture of death — death of a city, death of what urban greatness we once had, death of a human-scale world. These towering edifices are cold as tombs, hateful to the street, without history, untouchable, without humanity, and way, way too tall.

There are two lawsuits trying to fight the Two Bridges towers. One is in the works by a coalition of Lower East Side and Chinatown residents. They charge that the city is violating its own laws in putting up these monsters. This group is ready to use whatever barricades they can find. They know how to organize, do rallies, read the political tea leaves and have no illusions. That is, even if we can get these towers to go through a public land-use review process (ULURP) there is no indication that Councilmember Margaret Chin would then actually use that opportunity to stop them. To help this coalition, go to their Web site here.

The area boxed in red shows the footprint of the megatower projects. In a perk for the community, the developers have pledged to provide some upgrades to a number of local parks.

The second lawsuit filed — under community pressure — was developed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in alliance with the City Council. Their suit claims that the head of City Planning (Big Real Estate insider Carl Weisbrod) violated the law and behaved arbitrarily and capriciously when he declared that the zoning changes these towers required were all just “minor modifications” [sic]. As such, the projects could go through the bureaucracy with his nod alone rather than through the normal (and deeply flawed) public review process that much smaller projects must undergo.

While both lawsuits have right on their side (see the City Council’s brief against the city here), getting justice in court in this kind of case is hard. Judges don’t want to intervene in issues involving regulatory agencies, and typically throw up their hands, claiming they can’t do anything because all discretion lies with the experts in the regulatory agency. On the bright side, the City Council’s legal brief is very good and lays out a good case that Weisbrod was on the wrong side of the law.

Fighting these towers also means fighting a vision of the city that we don’t want, and arguing for a human-scale alternative. It also means building electoral power and coalitions among those who are sick of the way real estate power rules everything in New York City. So don’t just shield your eyes in sorrow when you glance down to the Extell Tower From Hell that is complete. Go to www.humanscale.nyc and take the voter pledge not to support any candidates who take real estate money. That’s a first step that will connect you to one of the many resistance networks in the city.

Lynn Ellsworth
Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC