William Alatriste for the City Council

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a plaintiff in the suit because she tried to advance a zoning change that, the case alleges, the City Planning Commission undermined.

The City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer filed a joint lawsuit in Manhattan State Supreme Court Friday against the City two days after the City Planning Commission voted in favor of a plan for three developments in the Two Bridges neighborhood.

A judge on Friday night declined a request by the Council and Brewer to order a complete halt to all activity related to the the developments pending a February hearing on their suit. But the de Blasio administration did agree on Friday to not issue any Department of Buildings approval letters between now and then.

The plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order, allowing the developers to move ahead securing permits for the projects, according to the city’s Law Department. But a Council spokesperson says the de Blasio administration agreed not to grant any permit approvals for the project until the next court date, in 2019.

The lawsuit names the Department of City Planning, the City Planning Commission (CPC), the Department of Buildings and City Planning Director and Commission Chair Marisa Lago as parties whose actions allegedly “failed to perform a duty enjoined upon them by law and who have made a determination in violation of lawful procedure,” according to court records.

It alleges that the CPC circumvented the City Council’s authority over the land-use process and neutralized the application filed by Councilmember Margaret Chin and Brewer for a text amendment on the Two Bridges zoning resolution. It demands a public review of the three proposed development sites and a halt on site construction until it goes through the public review process.

In a joint press statement with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Councilmember Margaret Chin, Brewer said, “City Planning’s staff and the Commission have exceeded their legal authority. They used a made-up process and made-up standards to approve these towers without the full land-use review and Council approval that’s required.”

“I don’t like suing the mayor or his agencies,” Brewer said, “but if that’s what it takes to get the residents of Two Bridges the full review and real negotiation they’re entitled to under the law, then I’m all in.”

Chin added, “This lawsuit was made necessary by the actions of the Department of City Planning and this Administration. My colleagues and I could not stand by as an entire neighborhood’s worth of rezoning was categorized as a ‘minor modification’.”

Johnson had announced on Wednesday the City Council was looking into legal actions it could take to stop the developments after the City Planning Commission voted in favor of the Two Bridges developments.

“The Council is taking legal action to correct mistakes made by the city in trying to rush through a massive multi-site development without the public review process that projects of this size legally require,” said Johnson. “We expect projects which produce almost 3,000 units of new housing to go through the public review process mandated by the City Charter so we can assess the appropriateness of these developments.”

The heart of the dispute between City Hall and the other elected officials is the de Blasio administration’s determination that, despite the size of the proposed buildings, they represent only a “minor modification” of an existing set of rules that apply to the area because of its earlier designation as an urban renewal site. A minor modification does not have to go through the full ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), in which the Council has a binding vote.

The lawsuit notes the “purported ‘minor modification’ is on the same order of magnitude in terms of dwelling units added” as the rezonings of East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, Downtown Far Rockaway, and Inwood, all of which went through ULURP.

The joint application for a minor modification filed by four developers would allow three new mixed-use high-rise buildings, a 1,008-foot rental tower at 247 Cherry Street by JDS Development Group; a 798-foot dual-tower project at 260 South Street by L+M Development Partners and CIM Group; and a 730-foot building at 259 Clinton Street by Starrett Corporation.

According to environmental review documents, the four towers would bring in 11,000 square feet for retail and over 2,700 new residential units to the area; 25 percent of those units will be affordable. Two hundred of those 690 affordable units would be set aside for seniors (although details of how affordability will be measured has not been shared).

Today’s court ruling enables the developers to move forward with obtaining the preliminary approvals that are necessary before development of the sites,” said the Law Department in an emailed comment. “The city’s position is clear: Subjecting these developments to ULURP would have gone beyond DCP’s statutory authority.”

In a statement, the Department of City Planning said, “These approved projects offer the Lower East Side community 700 new and permanent affordable homes, including for seniors, new and improved parks and open spaces, an ADA-accessible subway station and $12.5 million in improvements to NYCHA. All of that goes away if the development goes away.”

Other battle plans emerge

The elected officials’ suit will not be the only legal dispute to arise in Two Bridges.

Residents and community organizations such as Lower East Side Organized Neighbors (LESON) and Chinatown Working Group, who worry that the dispute over ULURP’s applicability could be resolved but result in the buildings still going up, plan on taking the city to court.

LESON says it is planning to sue over the violation of the zoning text article 7 section 8 on “Special Regulations Applying to Large-Scale Residential Developments” which states its’ regulations allow greater flexibility for development on vacant land; provide incentives while safeguarding the present or future use and development; efficient use of scarce land within the framework of the overall bulk controls; enable open space for active and passive recreation needs of the resident; protect and preserve scenic assets and natural features such as trees, streams and topographic features; fostering to a population of balanced family sizes; to encourage harmonious designs and “thus to promote and protect public health, safety and general welfare.”

Tieu said de Blasio administration has violated those regulations by allowing the Two Bridges development to move forward.

Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), Tenants United Fighting for Lower East Side (TUFF-LES) and Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) also plan on suing. The group has not shared specifics of their lawsuit.

In the meantime, TUFF-LES, GOLES and the Manhattan Community Board 3 announced Friday the group has filed initial required documents to begin the process of rezoning with the Department of City Planning in their first step toward creating the Special Lower East Side and Chinatown Waterfront District.

According to GOLES, the special district would protect the Two Bridges neighborhood from unchecked development as “envisioned by over fifty local groups working together over nearly a decade of planning studies.” The rezoning initiative, which stems from the 2008 Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan, is one of several strategies being used in order to fight the CPC’s approval of the Two Bridges projects.

“As residents, we applaud the City Council for taking the bold step of filing a lawsuit today,” said Grace Mak, TUFF-LES board member and area resident. “We hope they will continue to move strongly in favor of just, equitable and community-led development by supporting our rezoning of the Two Bridges waterfront.”

“It’s important that those who will be directly impacted by the proposed megatowers have a say about what’s happening in their own neighborhood,” said Paula Z. Segal, Community Development Project attorney for local groups. “The special district will help ensure that the people who live and work in the Two Bridges community have a say in how the neighborhood grows and for whom new housing is developed here.”

The group argues that Two Bridges community, where the three developments have been proposed, is a low-to-middle income community. The special district rezoning proposal would create long-term protections for tenants including limits on banks and drugstores and all new construction would be limited to 350 feet.

“Our community deserves better,” said Munir Smith, a GOLES organizer and community resident. “The people who live and work in our neighborhood know best what we need.”

The Two Bridges and neighboring communities are looking at other ideas to hold off the three developments.

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side is hosting a town hall Dec. 12th to discuss options for stopping the skyscrapers.

2 thoughts on “Fight Over Land-Use Powers in Council’s Two Bridges Lawsuit

  1. Anything related to NYC zoning is endlessly confusing. Whatever you think of Two Bridges it sounds like the City Council thought it could change the zoning rules by simply changing the zoning text. Confusing. I guess this why we have lawyers who do nothing but handle zoning issues all day.

  2. Pingback: On MLK day, a march against displacement from the Lower East Side to City Hall – Rights Here

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