Recently, the Crown Heights community was able to force Mayor Bill de Blasio to express opposition to a proposed luxury development that would harm the greenhouse in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Saying he was concerned about the plants and the environment, the mayor referred to that development as “grossly out of scale.” The City Planning Commission and the City Council quickly took the cue and voiced opposition as well. We applaud our friends in Crown Heights for their accomplishment against the luxury development.
At the same time, we couldn’t fail to notice the irony. Mayor de Blasio was totally fine with Extell erecting an 80-story skyscraper—now called One Manhattan Square—in the low-rise, working class, and predominantly black, Hispanic, and Asian community of Two Bridges. During its construction, dozens of residents, many of whom had suffered lung illnesses as a result of the toxic fallout from the September 11 attacks 20 years ago, reported that they coughed up blood for months, and asthma attacks became rampant. Tenants in buildings adjacent to the site were left with cracked walls, sloped floors, and damaged pipes from the shockwaves of excavation and an exploded transformer. Rents and real-estate taxes rose. Elderly public-housing residents nearby reported that their sunlit rooms were now shrouded in depressing shadows. As the development displaced the neighborhood’s main supermarket, groceries became too expensive, so residents had to travel to Brooklyn to buy food for their families. All of this misery enriched some of the wealthiest developers in the city.
Now, four more luxury towers of similar scale are coming. When the mayor said they were a done deal and Councilmember Margaret Chin stated she would “not stop these towers from going up,” people imagined four times the misery, and organized their neighbors to fight. The community testified at the Planning Commission’s environmental-impact hearing that the towers would cause the destruction of people’s homes, blows to public health, and mass displacement. We cited renderings of the shadows they would cast over the surrounding area, plunging the neighborhood into darkness so that the one percent could have prime views. We garnered thousands of signatures on our petition calling on Council Speaker Corey Johnson to take a moral stand against this project for the damage it would do to the community and the environment. But Mayor de Blasio approved the towers in 2018, and Johnson has remained unopposed.
The contrast with their opposition to the development near Brooklyn Botanic Garden is incredible. It is as if to say that, in New York City, plants are more valuable than people. It chills people to the bone to see that the Mayor even went to the extent of violating the city’s zoning law to approve the four proposed towers.
The law governing the Two Bridges’ Large Scale Residential Development area, along the waterfront, is clear: Developments that would inhibit air and sunlight and harm the character and environment of the neighborhood are unlawful. Anyone who seeks to build in this area must submit findings proving that their proposed development would not threaten the community’s access to air and sunlight and the integrity of the built and natural environment. That damage would be sure to happen if towers up to 1,000 feet tall were constructed in an area where the largest building was 200 feet. The community sued the city and developers for violating this zoning law.
In New York City, plants appear to be more valuable than people.
We won a lower-court ruling that the city’s approval of the towers was illegal, and secured an injunction against the project. Meanwhile Councilmember Chin and Speaker Johnson filed a separate lawsuit, arguing the towers should not be built unless they were approved through the Council’s land-use review process. The Appellate Division dismissed their case and overturned our victory by conflating our lawsuit with theirs.
It is past the time for the city to recognize the self-evident fact that people are part of the environment. That the people who live, work, study, play, and create in an environment are worth just as much as the grass and the trees. The candidates running for city offices should not be like de Blasio, Johnson, or Chin: Instead, they should support our redoubled fight against the mega-towers and for the passage of the full Chinatown Working Group Rezoning Plan to prevent luxury high-rises that will destroy the environment and displace our community.
Having the local Councilmember’s support in the fight against these types of developments will help bring more attention to predatory land-use practices and the campaign to stop them. In the District 1 race to succeed Margaret Chin, candidate Christopher Marte fully supports stopping the mega-towers in Two Bridges and passing the full Chinatown Working Group Rezoning Plan, which would also require new housing to be truly affordable to the Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhood. The other Council candidates running in our district have not stood by the community to that extent, and some of them have worked directly against us. At the same time, we can’t rely on any elected official alone. We have to continue building a community-wide movement against the city’s pro-developer agenda.
May Li and Zishun Ning are both members of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. May Li is a pseudonym.
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