Handel Architects

A rendering of potential development in Two Bridges provided by the developers. Farthest left is the Extell tower, which is already nearing completion. The other four towers have yet to be approved and are the subject of the fight.

A state Supreme Court judge’s decision released Thursday could send the developers behind proposed four high-rises in Manhattan’s Two Bridges neighborhood back to square one, in a victory for City Council and Manhattan Borough President and a defeat for the de Blasio administration. 

Supreme Judge Arthur Engoron ruled in favor of the Council and Borough President Gale Brewer in their lawsuit contending that the proposed development must go through the public review process, known as Uniform Land Use Review Procedure or ULURP.

Doing otherwise, the judge ruled, would cause “irreparable harm.”

“First, a community will be drastically altered without having had its proper say. Second, and arguably more important, allowing this project to proceed without the City Council’s imprimatur would distort the city’s carefully crafted system of checks and balances,” Engoron’s decision stated. “Under ULURP, the City Council’s mandatory role is not merely to advise, but to grant or deny final approval (with the mayor). Without ULURP, the city’s legislature is cut out of the picture entirely.”

The court’s decision means the original City Planning Commission approval vote last year is void and the developers will have to re-submit their land-use application, according to Paula Segal, attorney with TakeRoot Justice, who represents the Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side (TUFF-LES), CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) group in a separate lawsuit against the proposed Two Bridges development.

‘Minor’ problems

The controversy is over a joint application filed by four developers for three new mixed-use high-rise projects involving four towers: 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, and 200 of those 690 affordable units would be set aside for seniors (although the details of how affordability will be measured has not been shared).

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.

A significant element of the controversy over the Two Bridges proposals is the de Blasio administration determination that they represented only a “minor modification” of the existing special permit on the parcels and therefore did not require a full public review.

Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin both said the project’s size did not allow it to be a minor modification, and therefore it must undergo a 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 contended 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 (more details of the lawsuit can be read here).

Vow to appeal

The City Council, Brewer and Chin were satisfied with the judge’s decision and repeated that the proposed development in the Two Bridges would have had an extensive impact on the community and larger Lower East Side neighborhood.

“I’m so gratified that Judge Engoron has ruled in our favor, and that the Two Bridges developments—which will have a ‘huge’ impact on the neighborhood—must undergo the ULURP process. I’m grateful that Council member Chin, Speaker Johnson and local activists came together to support our suit and we were successful,” said Brewer in a press release.

The city’s Law Department said in an email statement that they were discontented in the judge’s decision: “We are disappointed by the court’s ruling impacting a project expected to add hundreds of affordable housing units and improve transit infrastructure for the community. We are considering the city’s legal options.”

And the developers said in a statement that their proposed development was in compliance with city laws, and that they plan on pursuing an appeal. 

“Needless to say, we disagree with the court’s ruling, as these projects were lawfully approved and met all legal requirements. They were proposed after years of community consultation, public review and environmental analysis, and in compliance with zoning that’s been in place for more than 30 years,” they said. “We will appeal this decision in the near future and look forward to delivering nearly 700 units of permanently affordable housing, $40 million in upgrades to the East Broadway subway station that will make it ADA-accessible for the first time, $12.5 million in essential repairs to the local NYCHA complex and $15 million in upgrades to three public parks in the neighborhood.”  

Other legal battles continue

For the time being, however, the decision appears to block any meaningful steps toward developing those sites. “The decision is very clear that none of the agencies can take any action. They cannot send confronting letters, they cannot accept applications, nothing can happen towards the development of the towers until they are properly approved,” said Segal during a tele-press conference Thursday evening. 

While hailing the decision, another local group, Lower East Side Organized Neighbors (LESON) warned that merely forcing the proposals through ULURP would not guarantee that the neighborhood is protected. Most applications survive ULURP, with developers and the city making concessions in the form of added investments or marginally reduced project size, but rarely altering the heart of their proposals.

“While a blanket approval of development would have been the worst possible outcome of this decision, the community is not deceived into believing that a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure is any kind of victory,” LESON, which has its own lawsuit going, said in a statement. “No matter if a playground is re-painted or a sidewalk re-paved, the influx of thousands of new residents will overburden any structural investments. Even more serious is the massive displacement that will be caused by over 2,000 market-rate units being constructed in the last working-class community of Lower Manhattan.”

This is the second recent legal win for opponents of the Two Bridges proposal. A state appellate court panel of judges ruled last month that developers of the proposed 1,008-foot tower at 235-247 Cherry Street  must obtain tenant Little Cherry LLC’s consent in order to proceed.

For Two Bridges and Lower East Side community groups and residents fighting against the development in the courts, Engoron’s decision offers hope for their own, separate lawsuit and for their effort to revive a community rezoning plan that the de Blasio administration dismissed.

Daisy Echevarria, a Two Bridges resident at 275 South St. and TUFF-LES member, said it was a long and arduous journey for residents. “I feel like this is a very David and Goliath moment because these developers just assumed that this community was going to be silent, that this community wasn’t going to push back, but they got the surprise of their life because we were very, very involved,” she said. “It was a long journey, but it was worthwhile.” 

Engoron is expected to rule on the TUFF-LES group lawsuit after his return from a short break. 

Buying time for a revived rezoning?

In 2008, after the East Village rezoning under the Bloomberg administration, community groups assembled the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) and put forth the Plan for Chinatown and the Surrounding Areas. The plan entails creating a “Special District” encompassing a large swathe of The Lower East Side and Chinatown, including over half of Community Board 3 and parts of Community Board 1 and 2. The Special District would institute a variety of strategies to maintain the neighborhood’s affordability for low-income immigrants, including limiting density in some areas, while encouraging affordable housing development in others.

In 2015, then DCP Director Carl Weisbrod rejected the plan, citing its size — the CWG rezoning plan covered 111 blocks of Chinatown and the Lower East Side — and extended an offer to work with CWG to craft a narrower plan. 

The new rezoning proposal for Two Bridges takes a portion of the CWG rezoning plan applying to the Lower East Side Waterfront, called subdistrict D. The proposed rezoning would limit heights to 350 feet for new development and it would require up to 55 percent guaranteed on-site permanently affordable housing. Hotels, big box stores, and clubs would require a special permit with the requirement for public review. And it would also require community facilities such as schools, supermarkets or nonprofit recreation centers.

Segal said community groups want their rezoning application to be approved before developers complete their Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) so that they will have to comply with the proposed rezoning text of the neighborhood. 

CAAAV, one of the co-applicants for the rezoning, said the court decision has been inspirational and brought hope to the community for a rezoning.

“I think with rezoning the neighborhood, we want to really change the rules about what can be built and make sure that it’s in context with and meets the needs of what currently exists and the really important community that is here,” says Melanie Wang, Chinatown Tenant Union Lead Organizer for CAAAV. “I’ve already talked to several of our CAAAV tenant members this afternoon about this victory and our members are working class, immigrant residents of Chinatown neighborhood. And folks are really excited to know that the result of today’s decision means that we have an even stronger shot at rezoning which will I think make all the difference for this neighborhood.”