A Supreme Court justice presiding over multiple lawsuits concerning a large-scale development plan in Two Bridges listened to each party for hours in a packed courtroom Wednesday but reserved judgement on a case challenging the power of the mayor to decide when a project can escape public review.
In a major win for advocacy groups, the judge ruled that a temporary restraining order against the Two Bridges development would stay in place.
Two Bridges used to be an Urban Renewal Area, where the city sought to remove blight and create mixed-income housing and employment opportunities. In 1972, the area was designated as a Large-Scale Residential Development (LSRD) area, a district in which the city allows flexibility from normal land-use regulations in order to facilitate the most space-efficient and beneficial site plans for large apartment buildings that span multiple property lots.
The contention is over a 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 DEIS 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).
A significant element of the controversy over the Two Bridges proposals is that the de Blasio administration has determined they represent only a “minor modification” of an existing special permit on the parcels and therefore do no require a full Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP.
One lawsuit comes from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in tandem with the City Council. Different groups of Chinatown and Lower East Side community groups have filed three separate lawsuits against the city and the Two Bridges developers group.
The City Council and Brewer lawsuit contends the City Planning Commission’s “minor modification” analysis was incorrect and the approval of special permits in the area “demands” a public review.
Brewer and Chin Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin both said the project size did not allow it be a minor modification and must undergo public review process because of its’ impact on density, construction and traffic on the Two Bridges neighborhood which serves a historically working class community.
The City Council and Brewer also contend that the proposed development would require the lifting of a 1986 deed restriction at 80 Rutgers Slip, a senior affordable housing building. According to the lawsuit, that deed restriction ensures low-income housing for residents “with disabilities and the elderly in perpetuity,” which the lawsuit alleges was never disclosed by the developers or the Department of City Planning.
In March, a coalition of Lower East Side and Chinatown community groups (Lower East Side Organized Neighbors, Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Youth Against Displacement, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and residents) filed suit, asking for the an annulment of the entire development project.
A second joint lawsuit was filed the same day by a second community coalition including, Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Good Old Lower East Side, Land’s End One Tenants Association and LaGuardia Houses Tenants’ Association. That suit is asking for for the courts to annul the approval of the development project entirely because the city did not follow the correct process, according to Paula Segal, attorney with the Equitable Neighborhoods Practice at the Community Development Project, who represents TUFF-LES group lawsuit.
Segal said in a later interview with City Limits, “It’s a specific process called “authorization” and is specific to LSRD Adminstration [and] it requires findings. The Board of Estimate passed a resolution in 1972 mandating that all site plan changes to this LSRD follow the LSRD authorization process. That’s the law that controls this.”
In April, a third lawsuit was filed by the Two Bridges Townhouses Condominium, which contended that the impact of the development would be significant for their residents and their properties; that suit also seeks a public land review process. This lawsuit with withdrawn and their attorney could not be reached in time for a comment.
Both lawsuits from the community organizations and Two Bridges residents say the development project does not comply with zoning text that demands open space, harmonious designs and other steps “to promote and protect public health, safety and general welfare.”
“One of the buildings will loom over and close off rows of windows and block the northern waterfront view,” said Mark Richardson, who has lived in Two Bridges for 40 years. “We have little open space and they will build on that too and it will overcrowd a community that is already overcrowded.”
Jacky Wong, chair of Community Board 3 Land Use Committee said the community has argued that development is out of scale for the area and would block resident access to light and air while adding over 2, 000 market- rate apartments within a rent- burdened community.
On Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron issued a continued temporary restraining order against the Two Bridges development project until August 2 so he could consider the case further.
The lawyers from the City and the developers for the Two Bridges project said that there was no need for a ULURP process because the development project did not require changing the zoning of the area. “The size of the buildings do not matter here,” said Janice Mac Avoy, representing the group behind the development project. “Although the height is significant, it does not matter because that is what the zoning allowed here in the LSRD.”
Justice Engoron responded, “But the size here is an 800-pound gorilla,” he said. The quiet room let out a ripple of snickers.
Mac Avoy continued with the same argument that the ULURP has nothing to do with the size of the development because the project is complying with the underlying zoning therefore making it exempt from public review. (The developers did agree to participate in a joint environmental review and there were public hearings as part of that, but by avoiding ULURP the de Blasio administration and developers avoid the possibility of a “no” vote in the CIty Council that would kill the project.)
“The lawsuits heard today are wholly without merit and we are confident that they will be dismissed. These projects were approved after extensive community consultation, public review and environmental analysis, and are in compliance with the underlying zoning that’s been in place for more than 30 years,” said a spokesman for the developers.
The developers spokesman said the project would bring in an estimated 700 units of permanently affordable housing, $40 million in upgrades to the East Broadway subway station that will make it ADA-accessible, $12.5 million for repairs to Two Bridges Houses NYCHA complex and $15 million in upgrades to three public parks in the neighborhood. He said the developers followed the process to the letter and their project is supported by the history of development in Two Bridges LSRD which has undergone several approvals over the last few decades.
The city’s Law Department was also not satisfied with the ruling and stated in an email to City Limits: “We are disappointed with this ruling. We respectfully disagree with the court’s preliminary findings. The approvals made by the city were appropriate and we will continue to defend against the claims challenging these important projects,”
Paula Segal, attorney with the Equitable Neighborhoods Practice at the Community Development Project, who represents TUFF-LES group lawsuit said this ruling was a step in the right direction, “We won Two Bridges hearing, today. The judge accepted our arguments and extended the restraining order until written decision in August. He said on the record that he believes the process was fatally flawed.”