‘Minor Modification’ Luxury Towers in Two Bridges Halted for Now

Christopher Morrow & Indypendent Staff Jun 10, 2019

Community groups opposing the construction of high-end luxury towers in Manhattan’s Two Bridge’s neighborhood won an injunction against the development in court last week. The development team, however, says it will challenge the restraining order and still plans to go forward with the project.

“Today shows the strength of community in the face of wealthy developers and a corrupt mayor,” said Vanessa Thill of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side in reaction to the state judge’s ruling on Wednesday.

Thill and other activists based in Chinatown and on the Lower East Side accuse the City Planning Commission of acting in bad faith when in December it bypassed the city’s land use approval process by classifying the $4.5 billion project as a “minor modification” to an earlier residential development plan approved in 1972.

The planned buildup includes four high-rise towers, one of which will stretch more than 1,000 feet high. In addition to the 2,700 new housing units the development would add to Two Bridges, it would include 11,000 square feet of retail space.

“They are calling it a minor modification,” said Thill. “That’s how they snuck it through zoning.”

Presiding judge Arthur Engoron seemed to agree. “These are huge towers,” he noted from the bench. “I’ve lived in the city my whole life. You can’t just do this because the zoning allows it. I just can’t believe this is the case.”

The city has argued the development is crucial to adding to its affordable housing stock, but just 25 percent of the new units, or 690, would be designated as “affordable.” Housing activists have argued the affordability distinction is likely a dubious one, observing that other inclusionary developments in recent years have been based on a metric that includes the median incomes of the metro area’s wealthiest enclaves.

Ahead of the June 5 hearing a diverse coalition of the project’s opponents congregated in front of the New York Supreme Court building, gathering around a bright orange banner that read “Fuck the Towers.”

“This is clearly redevelopment for the influx of wealthy people,” said Jen Chantrtanapichate of the Sixth Street Community Center in nearby Alphabet City.

The hearing centered on a series of three lawsuits filed against the city and the firms behind the tower project — CIM Group, L+M Development Partners and Starrett Development, under the umbrella of JDS Development Group.

The first such suit, initiated in January by the City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, accuses the City Planning Commission of bypassing the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which gives the elected officials approval power over big developments such as the Two Bridges high rises.

Our Two Bridges lawsuit is about the right of the community to have a say when it comes to development in their neighborhood,” Brewer wrote on Twitter. “These proposed towers should go through public review!”

Neighborhood groups —  including Lower East Side Organized Neighbors, the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, Youth Against Displacement and several long term residents — have filed two subsequent suits. They argue that the project should not go forward under ULURP or otherwise, contending that the high rises will amount to a significant interference with light, air and privacy for tenants in the surrounding area, and will lead to severe traffic congestion and other negative environmental consequences.

They also point out that one of the proposed sites, 247 Cherry Street, comes with a deed restriction mandating that it be used “in perpetuity” exclusively for low-income senior and disability housing.

Prior to the June 5 ruling, a JDS Development Group spokesperson issued a statement that blamed an “anti-development sentiment” for holding up “tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions [of dollars] in community investment” across the city. “It’s important to remember that those actions are not without direct consequences for the communities that stand to benefit,” the statement continued.

For now, however, legal activism on the part of both community members and local representatives has halted the development. Judge Engoron is expected to issue his final ruling on the fate of the project on August 2.

Photo: Community groups opposing high rises in Manhattan’s Two Bridges neighborhood gathered outside the state Supreme Court building in Manhattan on June 5. Credit: Christopher Morrow.

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