BY ELANA DURE | “Follow the law! Follow the law!”
This three-word chant rang outside the Department of City Planning’s Financial District headquarters on Tuesday morning Aug. 15. Sponsored by four community organizations, the rally was an outlet for residents from the Financial District, Lower East Side and Chinatown to protest the process that developers were told to follow on applications for the construction of four “supertall” towers in the Two Bridges community.
The group of roughly 25 community activists, politicians and residents aired concerns regarding three developments consisting of four luxury apartment buildings in the Two Bridges waterfront community — the area along the East River near the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges where the Lower East Side meets Chinatown.
JDS Development Group plans to build a 77-story skyscraper while Starrett Development has proposed a 62-story residential building. Two Bridges Associates plans two towers on a shared base, the tallest of which will be 68 stories. The megatowers, all within a three-block radius, will neighbor Extell’s new 80-story condo building, which is close to “topping out,” as in being completed to its maximum height.
Last year, Carl Weisbrod, the city’s former “Planning Czar,” said that under the current zoning law, these large-scale developments are considered “minor modifications” that can go through an “enhanced E.I.S.” (environmental impact statement) process that does not require applications for new permits or authorizations to build.
Advocates argue the city’s Zoning Resolution does not allow for any modification of previously granted authorizations and special permits in the Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Development area. They say the only pathway to approval of changes is through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a seven-month-long approval process that requires review from the local community board, borough board, City Council and mayor.
Two weeks ago, the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project sent a letter to current City Planning Director Marisa Lago on behalf of community organizations. The letter asked Lago to change Weisbrod’s directive and allow for a transparent ULURP.
Paula Segal, senior staff attorney at the Urban Justice Center, wrote, “We’re here today at the Department of City Planning to ask the department to turn over a new leaf and to invite the community into a process that is laid out, understandable and that we can all follow, and not a process designed behind closed doors to facilitate as much construction as quickly as possible.”
The letter was sent a day after the city rejected a request from a group of local politicians, including Councilmember Margaret Chin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, to change the developments’ status to “major modifications,” which would require that they then go through ULURP.
However, a Planning spokesperson said, “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.”
Advocates said they plan to call next upon the City Planning Commission if the Department of City Planning continues to reject the idea of ULURP for the jumbo towers.
Residents and activists worry the new developments will cause detrimental impacts on the area’s fabric and power grid.
The proposed construction would create more than 3,000 luxury units in the currently low- and middle-income community. Residents believe the neighborhood’s infrastructure cannot support the new developments and that the influx of new residents will affect the quality of life of current community members. People also fear that the wealthier new residents will drive away those already living in the area.
The area’s largely immigrant community is known for its unique character and is one of the only New York City neighborhoods without a Starbucks. Residents fear that, along with affordable housing, they will also lose the distinctiveness of their neighborhood.
“We’ve seen this happen all over New York: Big, expensive apartment towers go up that disproportionally [sic] cater to more affluent and transient residents with little or no consideration for the existing community,” said Marc Richardson, a member of Tenants United Fighting for Lower East Side (TUFF-LES) and vice president of the Land’s End One Tenant Association (LEOTA). “Affordable stores are replaced with high-end shops,” he added, “ultimately resulting in an economically hostile environment for long-standing members of the community. We love our neighborhood and don’t want to see it torn apart by greed.”
Some residents, like Wendy Brawer, a member of the post-Superstorm Sandy recovery group LES Ready, are also concerned that the mammoth new buildings are too close to the river’s edge and will cause problems with floodwaters in the future.
A City Planning spokesperson said agency officials understand current residents’ concerns and has measures in place to address those needs. Starrett Development, Two Bridges Associates and JDS Development Group all plan to dedicate at least 25 percent of their towers’ apartments to permanent affordable housing.
“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,” a Planning spokesperson said. “This coordinated review will help produce the best possible outcome for this neighborhood.”
Despite these measures, activists said they are ready to bring the issue to court if the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission do not agree to doing a ULURP for these projects by December.
“The Department of City Planning needs to follow its own rules and procedures and allow our community its rightful say in this project,” said Melanie Wang, Chinatown Tenants Union organizer at CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities. “If the proposed luxury towers go up, we have no doubt there will also be increases in tenant harassment and evictions in the surrounding rent-regulated buildings, with a huge impact on local residents. Those residents deserve to be heard.”