The city’s Law Department argued their second appeal in court Wednesday against two lawsuits which resulted in an earlier injunction stopping the project, which would build four new skyscrapers on the Lower East Side.
The city’s Law Department and developers behind the contentious Two Bridges proposal appeared before a panel of judges in state appellate court Wednesday, arguing their second appeal against two lawsuits which resulted in an earlier injunction that halted the project from moving forward.
The focus of the argument — waged between members of the Lower East Side community against the de Blasio administration, and the developers who want to build four skyscrapers there — hinges on the specifics of a special designation the city gave the neighborhood in 1972, when it was deemed a Large-Scale Residential Development (LSRD) area, where the city allows flexibility from normal land-use regulations to facilitate the most space-efficient uses for large apartment buildings that span multiple property lots.
One of the lawsuits challenging the Two Bridges proposal—brought by Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side (TUFF-LES), CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), Land’s End Tenant Association and the LaGuardia Houses Tenant Association — argues that the city’s own zoning regulations do not allow for modification within a LSRD area without a “formal authorization by the City Planning Commission (CPC) based on specific findings, supported by evidence,” according to court filings. This did not happen in the de Blasio administration’s earlier approval of Two Bridges, and a judge sided with the plaintiffs last year, ruling that the city was required to make sure the new development met a set of conditions—or “findings”—including that it not drastically change the neighborhood’s character, population density or have adverse impacts on access on light, air or privacy.
The controversial project would include a 1,008-foot rental tower at 247 Cherry St., a 798-foot dual-tower project at 260 South Street, and a 730-foot building at 259 Clinton Street. The four towers would bring in 11,000 square feet of retail and over 2,700 new residential units, 25 percent of which would be affordable, with 200 of those 690 affordable units set aside for seniors. The development project would also come with $40 million in upgrades to the nearby East Broadway subway station, $12.5 million in repairs to the nearby NYCHA complex and $15 million in upgrades to three public parks in the neighborhood.
The city argues that the CPC is not required to make any findings under the LSRD designation, as the community’s lawsuit attests. “[The plaintiffs] contend that a special permit issued in 1972 imposes an ongoing requirement that the commission make findings. This argument finds no home in the text of the special permit itself, the text of the zoning resolution or the history of the LSRD,” Jamison Davies, senior counsel for appeals at the city’s Law Department, said to the judges panel Wednesday.
Davies cited the city’s legal win in a separate lawsuit against the Two Bridges project last year, in which an appeals court sided with the de Blasio administration. That suit, brought by the City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, argued that because of the proposed project’s large size, it required a special permit, which would trigger the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the city’s public land use review process. A judge in that case granted a temporary restraining order halting the development in 2019, but that decision was reversed last August in Appeals Court.
In a statement to City Limits, the developers behind Two Bridges — JDS Development Group, Starrett Corporation, L+M Development Partners and CIM Group — also pointed to that earlier court reversal as proof that their projects comply with existing zoning regulations.
“In August, the Appellate Division made clear that these projects were lawfully approved and comply with zoning that’s been in place for more than 30 years, and we’re confident that the court will again affirm that following today’s hearing,” said the statement. The developers argue that halting the project would deprive the community of private investment in affordable housing and infrastructure, something the cash-strapped city needs, especially during a global pandemic. “If the lower court’s decision to annul these projects stands, all of this investment and the jobs that come with it will not be realized,” their statement says.
Paula Segal, a senior staff attorney for Takeroot Justice who is representing the plaintiffs in Wednesday’s case, told City Limits that their legal argument is distinct from the one made in the City Council and Brewer’s lawsuit. Segal’s clients are asking the CPC to authorize and issue a findings report before approving such a large-scale project, which they argue is required under the site’s 1972 LSRD designation.
The plaintiffs initially won an injunction against the project in Supreme Court in 2019, and it was upheld by the court when the city sought to appeal it in February of last year. If the Appellate Court upholds the existing injunction once again, then the city’s Law Department and the developers’ attorneys could have another opportunity to appeal through the State Court of Appeals, the highest court. If the court decides to lift the current injunction, Segal says the community groups she represents would similarly seek a reversal in the Court of Appeals.
Wednesday’s court hearing is also considering another lawsuit seeking to stop the development, filed by the community group Lower East Side Organized Neighbors (LESON), which made similar arguments to Segal’s suit and also won an injunction last year. The judges panel may issue a decision in one or both cases moving forward.
Two Bridges residents involved in the lawsuits spoke at a press conference Wednesday evening, saying they are wary of the size of the project and the impact on longtime residents.
“This was an undesirable area 20, 30 years ago, and all of a sudden we’re prime real estate,” said Elaine La Penna, who lives in the building next to One Manhattan Square, a luxury condo development completed in 2019 by the company Extell. The developers built affordable housing as part of the project in order to benefit from a 20-year tax abatement through the state’s 421-a program, but residents have raised concerns about disparities between the affordable units and luxury condo building. While One Manhattan Square has its own security, La Penna’s building’s doors are broken, she says.
“The disparity is just disgusting. I hate to see that continue throughout the neighborhood. I think there has to be better zoning laws in place,” she said.
Several court decisions in recent months have tested the city’s land use powers. In November, a judge granted a stay for a temporary restraining order against private development plans for two 39-story residential buildings slated to bring 1,578 housing units to Crown Heights, which would tower over Brooklyn’s Botanical Garden nearby. In 2019, a judge annulled the city’s 2018 Inwood rezoning plan, but the city later prevailed against that decision in the Court of Appeals, allowing the rezoning plan to advance.
The city’s proposal to rezone 80 blocks of Gowanus in Brooklyn is also facing a lawsuit from community members who say it should be postponed until after the pandemic, when in-person public meetings can resume.