On March 23, 2019 a coalition of neighborhood groups filed a lawsuit against the City of New York for its approval of four luxury megatowers in the Two Bridges area. AAD thought it would be helpful to create a series of blog posts to help clarify the legal position and why we support this specific lawsuit. It has been our long-standing belief that these towers should not be built at all and we encourage others to join us in standing with our neighbors to send a message to our city administrators — we refuse to accept their continued failure to protect at risk communities. We will hold them accountable for their lack of vision in the planning of our city’s future.
Part I: Complaint
Before we get to the big picture, let’s get to the details. The petitioners of the lawsuit are: Lower East Side Organized Neighbors (LESON), Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA), Youth Against Displacement (YAD), National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) and our indomitable neighbors Clara Amatleon, Elvia Fernandez, Antonio Quey Lin, David Nieves, and Audrey Ward. Named in the lawsuit is The City of New York itself, Marisa Lago, and the departments she oversees: Department of City Planning, and the City Planning Commission, as well as the Department of Buildings. The suit aims to nullify the approval that City Planning gave for these massive towers in December 2018 despite tremendous outcry from the community and despite 3 specific violations:
- The proposed towers violate the terms of the Large Scale Residential District (LSRD). The Zoning Resolution of the area (LSRD) of Two Bridges, specifically Section 7, Chapter 8, states that any development in this zone cannot: interfere with light, air, and privacy, change the character of the neighborhood, cause detrimental building bulk, or create traffic congestion.
- There is a deed restriction on 247 Cherry Street, which states that the property is to be used “in perpetuity” only as housing for “elderly and handicapped persons of low income.”
- The inclusion of an inter-building void in 247 Cherry Street building design. Nearly a third of the building’s 80 stories are empty in order to artificially increase height.
The proposed towers violate the terms of the Large Scale Residential District (LSRD). The Zoning Resolution of the area (LSRD) of Two Bridges, specifically Section 7, Chapter 8, states that any development in this zone cannot: interfere with light, air, and privacy, change the character of the neighborhood, cause detrimental building bulk, or create traffic congestion.
When the City Planning Commission approved the proposed towers, community members were angry but not surprised. Throughout his tenure, our mayor and his administration have ceded their decision-making power to developers. In the case of Two Bridges, they went so far as to ignore the existing laws that make a development of this scale illegal, placing the financial interests of private developers over those of the community. It’s comical that Mayor de Blasio ran on a platform to end the “tale of two cities” in 2013 only to see the income gap widen as our city became less affordable, while private developers were given seemingly unfettered access to our resources. They have transformed our skyline into a mass of looming, faceless megatowers as local activist Lynn Ellsworth so aptly describes as:
“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.”
One would think developers should be the target if our anger but they could not carry out these projects without the support of our city administrators. Our representatives have misled us into thinking city planning is too mysterious for us to understand and that market-rate developments and rezonings are inevitable and cannot be stopped. But the plaintiffs we support know this to be untrue and demand the city to protect the intent of the existing Two Bridges LSRD, which is to facilitate community health, welfare, and a harmonious living environment. As residents of the Lower East Side and Chinatown continue to mobilize, we encourage all residents and small business owners new and long-time to educate themselves and their neighbors so that we can collectively hold our city agencies accountable. We demand that our representatives work to ensure that new projects contribute to improving our civic spaces and create architecture that serve the needs of all New Yorkers.
PART II: Violations
Before we get to the specific violations, we firstly refuse the City Planning Commission’s designation of the Two Bridges proposal as a “minor modification” when their shadows will fall as far west to Park Row, north to Houston Street, and south across the water to Sands Street in DUMBO. It is clear their deleterious effects will be irreversible. The scale and scope of the 4 proposed Two Bridges towers necessitates a construction process much more extreme than that of a typical multi-story building. During the construction of One Manhattan Square, Two Bridges residents experienced violent vibrations which created shifting of windows/ doors, cracks in walls, sinkholes, flooding, and damage to their utilities and infrastructure. The tremendous dust and air pollution created by this first supertall tower gravely impacted the health of residents who already had respiratory illnesses attributed to 9/11, especially seniors and young children. The 2,775 new units to Two Bridges is part of a larger development boom that has been taking place on the Lower East Side, with more than 20+ projects in the works that will add over 6,300 majority high-end residential units and an estimated 20,000 new residents to this neighborhood within the next few years
There are three separate violations and we will lead with the most important, which states development in this zone cannot: interfere with light, air, and privacy, change the character of the neighborhood, cause detrimental building bulk, or create traffic congestion. It is estimated that the proposed development will add upwards of 5,000 residents to the area, making it one of the most densely populated areas of Manhattan. The influx of residents will undoubtedly create additional stress and strain on the infrastructure, especially the already overtaxed sewage system that barely accommodates the needs of the area. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) claims that the sewage generated by these developments will have no significant impact on our waterways. However, this project could result in the dumping of up to an additional 44 million gallons of sewage into our waterways each year. The DEIS is meant to serve as a defense against negligence as it examines the impacts of the development and offer solutions to the problems it will cause. Unfortunately, this DEIS was conducted and paid for by the developers and there are no check and balances to guarantee that City Planning will hold it to any standard. Essentially, the DEIS is done simply to satisfy a bureaucratic to-do list and cannot be trusted to accurately portray real environmental threats.
Beyond taxing the infrastructure, the bulk and height of the proposed towers will interfere with light, air and privacy. Which brings us to issue of the inter-building void in the 247 Cherry Street building design. Nearly a third of the building’s 80 stories will remain empty in order to artificially increase height, the very height that will interfere with light, air and privacy. The Fire Department has expressed concern over the hazards of this design in similar buildings such as at 50 West 66th Street. And following a growing public uproar over developers exploiting loopholes to build “supertall” towers, the Department of City Planning proposed a zoning amendment that seeks to discourage them from using mechanical spaces, also known as “voids,” to add extra height to buildings with City Planning Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin quoted as saying:
“There just seems to be something odd about a manipulation of the zoning resolution in a way that allows people to monetize the sky, which really belongs to all of us.”
It is hard to imagine a housing plan more cynical than one that purposely leaves voids rather than utilizing the space to create true affordable housing especially given our homeless crisis. The Coalition for the Homeless released a report that blames policy failures by the City and State that have exacerbated the decades-long homelessness crisis stemming from New York’s severe lack of affordable housing and extreme income inequality, with an average of 63,495 men, women, and children sleeping in City shelters each night at the end 2017 – an all-time record. The failure of public policy is that it does too little too late to keep people in their homes in middle and working class communities.
This same building is also designed to cantilever up and over an existing senior center at 80 Rutgers Slip, and would demolish part of the building to make space for structural beams. Bringing us to the deed restriction on 247 Cherry Street, which states that the property is to be used “in perpetuity” only as housing for “elderly and handicapped persons of low income.” Why is the city allowing JDS Development to not only ignore a deed restriction meant to accommodate the elderly but to build in such a way that would necessitate the temporary displacement of the existing low-income seniors? The end result would be many more non-seniors living on the property violating the deed, as well as many existing seniors having to be relocated due to layout reconfiguration and construction disturbances such as vibrations, sound and dangerous air quality.
Overall the 4 proposed towers have impacts that we believe to be unmitigatable. We recognize the effort to include a percentage of “affordable” units, however because these units come with an income minimum well above the existing AMI of the area, we do not believe these units do much to alleviate the housing shortage for those at the bottom of the housing market. Planting new trees and subway improvements do not change the fact that these towers will negatively impact the neighborhood and surrounding areas. As we’ve seen throughout the city, this type of large scale luxury development leads to increased tenant harassment, the loss of much needed rent-stabilized apartments and the displacement of low-income residents and small businesses.
The lawsuit that was recently filed is not the first time Lower East Side and Chinatown residents have worked with The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) in fighting the city. We will cover this history and their successful campaign in Part III of our ongoing Two Bridges v. The City of New York series.
Full scope of the proposed development:1,008-foot rental tower at 247 Cherry Street by JDS Development Group. This building with cantilever over a senior center at 80 Rutgers; 798 and 728-foot tower at 260 South Street by L+M Development Partners and CIM Group. This building will be built on top of the parking lot behind Lands End II; 724-foot building at 259 Clinton Street by Starrett Corporation.
Average household size of 2.15 from Manhattan Community District 3 Profile (Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 and 2010 Censuses SF1 Population Division – NYC Department of City Planning [Dec 2011]).