Zishun Ning

Scene from a protest against the towers.

On MLK Day 2019, hundreds of people from Chinatown, the Lower East Side and across the city braved the subfreezing temperatures to march on City Hall. We marched to demand that the de Blasio administration stop the four illegal megatowers slated to rise in Two Bridges and pass the Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan in full. Our ranks were swelled by New Yorkers from across the five boroughs, calling for an end to the city’s pro-developer agenda.

A few days later, Councilmember Margaret Chin, Borough President Gale Brewer and their associates “discovered” that the tallest of the four, the JDS megatower, is deed-restricted so that its land can only be used for “elderly and handicapped persons of low-income.” That means not only do these towers violate the zoning law (Article 7 Chapter 8 of the zoning resolution, which precludes any development that blocks air and sunlight or alters neighborhood character), they also violate its original mandate.

You would think our elected officials would finally have the courage to say “no” unequivocally to these towers. After all, if the tower proposal violates the deed, shouldn’t the city then rescind the permit for the tower? If the city doesn’t know about what deeds are on these four sites, how can they be trusted to administer any development there?

When the deed restriction for the Rivington House was lifted through a backdoor deal, questions were raised about the city’s complicity in the scandal. Evidence showed that while the shady decision was made by the mayor, Chin knew that the deed for the nonprofit facility would have to be lifted for the private development company to take it over. We see the same blame-game in this attempt to cover the city’s tracks in allowing the already illegal towers to be built.

Chin uses this deed restriction to call for the proposed towers to go through the city’s ULURP process, an illogical conclusion that does nothing to stop the towers. From day one, Chin has stressed that she would not use ULURP to stop the megatowers. Instead, she merely wants to negotiate a few concessions from the developers—a handful of affordable units that no one can afford and some trees to line our parks and playgrounds. We’ve also seen how Chin has used ULURP in the past to help developers get their way. This happened in Essex Crossing, which is now home to Trader Joe’s and Target, and the NYU expansion which will allow a superblock of out of scale development.

But what the deed restriction news reveals is that the political establishment is reacting to our community’s organized efforts. This shows that we have the power to change things if we come together. Elected officials can see the rising discontent of the community and hope to deceive people into placing our hopes for salvation in them.  But this is not enough; we want fundamental change, not just a few crumbs.

We don’t want these four megatowers that were approved by the mayor. That means we are up to challenge the mayor’s pro-developer agenda, and our successful march on MLK Day has demonstrated our determination. Our hearts aspire to reclaim our democracy and protect our community from displacement. On this, there can be no compromise. Our anger and hope cannot be satiated with a few crumbs. Therefore we the Lower East Side Organized Neighbors (LESON) are filing a lawsuit, which argues that, since the towers violate the Zoning Resolution that governs the area, they should not be built. Period. Illegal is illegal.

So we call on everyone in the Chinatown and LES community to forge ahead, knowing that our cause is just and that the law is on our side. Whether our community prevails victorious is up to us all.

David Tieu and Zishun Ning are advocates with Lower East Side Organized Neighbors (LESON). For more information and get involved, contact Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side.