700 Feet Too Tall: Chinatown Fights Back Against Luxury Super Tower Plan

Issue 254

Chelsey Sanchez Jan 31, 2020

In the weeks preceding the Lunar New Year, Manhattan’s Chinatown bursts with crimson and gold. Residents tack upside-down fu, or good fortune, signs on their doorways. Lanterns with red tassels and gold embellishments hang from storefronts, swaying gently. This will be the year of the rat, marking the beginning of the Chinese zodiac’s 12-year cycle. In Chinese culture, the rat is an omen of prosperity and wealth.

But who will the riches belong to?

A few blocks southeast, in the Two Bridges neighborhood, a group of four developers — JDS Development Group, CIM Group, L+M Development Partners, and Starrett Development — are planning to erect four luxury towers on the East River waterfront. All four would be more than 700 feet tall, and the development as a whole would contain about 3,000 apartments, with 25 percent marked as “affordable.” The developers have promised to invest in neighborhood improvements, such as creating an accessible entrance at the East Broadway F train station and renovating park playgrounds. But in neighborhoods like these, high-rises bringing more than 2,000 luxury apartments are an omen of gentrification and displacement — and one that locals easily recognize by now.

“The thing about this is that when it’s too late, it’s too late,” said Briar Winters, co-chair of the Chinatown Working Group (CWG), a patchwork of local organizations and the two community boards from Chinatown and the Lower East Side. “Once neighborhoods are destroyed, people are displaced. It’s a crisis, and there’s really no going back.”

When the City Planning Commission greenlit the Two Bridges towers in December 2018, public outrage was palpable. The CPC designated it as a “minor” modification to the area, meaning that it would not have to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which allows community boards to make recommendations and gives the City Council a final vote.

The council acted swiftly. Along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, they filed a lawsuit arguing that such extensive projects must undergo ULURP. Last August, State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron ruled in their favor. “First, a community will be drastically altered without having had its proper say,” he wrote. “Second, and arguably more important, allowing this project to proceed without the City Council’s imprimatur would distort the City’s carefully crafted system of checks and balances.”

“There’s still people who have no idea what’s happening and even more people, I think, who feel like there’s nothing that we can do. And that, I think, is the most dangerous thing of all,” says Winters, who has lived in the area for 15 years. “This idea that, ‘Oh, it’s done. What can we do?’ It’s not true.”

The Chinatown Working Group was formed in 2008 after the neighborhood was left out of the city’s East Village rezoning plan, which set height caps on some blocks to protect a more affluent community from overdevelopment. In 2014, after working with the Pratt Center for Community Development, CWG released its own rezoning plan for Chinatown and the Lower East Side. It calls for height caps for new buildings, limiting the number of hotels allowed, and affordable housing based on the local income level, rather than the federal standard, which uses the “area median income” for the city and its more affluent northern suburbs.

The CPC rejected the plan in 2015, saying it was “not feasible at this time.” Since then, One Manhattan Square, a 72-story luxury apartment building, has replaced the only supermarket along the Two Bridges waterfront.

In March, a coalition of local organizations filed another lawsuit, asserting that building any towers in the area would be illegal. “ULURP doesn’t help anyone,” says Tony Quey Lin, a member of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “ULURP is for community input and everything else, but they never listen to the people in the community. They listen to the councilperson.”

In ULURP votes, the council typically defers to the member from the district where the development is planned. In Lower Manhattan, that’s Margaret Chin, who many in the coalition that filed the suit distrust. They have accused her of paving the way for schemes like New York University’s expansion project in 2012.

“From the beginning, Councilmember Chin has relentlessly opposed the proposed luxury developments in Two Bridges and has stood with residents and advocates by filing an unprecedented lawsuit to stop this plan,” a spokesperson responded.

In 2017, Chin and Borough President Gail Brewer told neighborhood residents in a letter that “we will not be able to stop these buildings from going up.” Since then, public pressure has mounted, and Chin has begun work with some advocacy groups to rezone the Two Bridges waterfront in an effort to halt construction. Still, a partial rezoning isn’t good enough for the CWG plan’s proponents. At a rally outside City Hall Jan. 20, protesters carried petitions with 5,000 signatures demanding that Chin, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson pass the CWG plan in its entirety and halt the “racist development” of the Two Bridges towers.

“It’s the same thing that we’ve seen in the East Village, where you just downzone or protect a certain area,” says Lower East Side resident Michael Perles, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Lower Manhattan Housing Group. “If you don’t do the whole neighborhood, it’s just gonna push the extreme luxury development to the areas directly outside of the boundaries of what has been rezoned.”

Perles also contends that neighborhood improvements do not justify new luxury residences. “We’re not going to compromise and get scraps during ULURP for a little bit more money towards park renovations or accessibility upgrades,” he said. “Those things, everyone in our neighborhood deserves, whether or not we get new housing.”

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