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Two Bridges towers hit with lawsuit from community groups

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One of the towers has 324 feet worth of controversial mechanical void space, says the suit

In the foreground is a body of water. In the distance are multiple tall skyscrapers and smaller city buildings.
A rendering of the luxury towers set to rise in the Two Bridges area of Manhattan.
SHoP Architects

A coalition of community groups have followed through on their pledge to sue the city in order to block three contested towers from rising in the Two Bridges neighborhood.

Lower East Side Organized Neighbors, Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association, and other activist groups are filing a joint lawsuit Friday urging a judge nullify the City Planning Commission’s approval of three high-rise towers slated for Two Bridges, arguing that the developments are out of character with the neighborhood’s zoning.

“The scale of these four towers, and the permanent negative impacts they will cause ... are at a minimum an enormous amendment to the Two Bridges [Large Scale Residential Development permit],” according to a copy of the suit obtained by Curbed, which will be imminently filed in Manhattan Supreme Court. “At a maximum, these towers are a catalyst for cumulative environmental damage to the broader Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhood and beyond.”

The suit, which was filed by attorneys with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, is the latest legal challenge to the towers developed by JDS Development Group, CIM Group, L+M Development Partners, and Starrett Development. Plans for the luxury structures, which will bring some 2,700 new units and 690 apartments earmarked as below market rate, were approved through a controversial minor modification that does not require the project to go through the city’s extensive Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

The City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer sued the city in December, just two days after the City Planning Commission approved the buildings in a 10-to-3 vote. Their challenge aims to force the plans into ULURP. A month later, they updated the suit, arguing that one of the towers actually violates a 32-year-old deed restriction meant to permanently ensure housing for low-income residents with disabilities and the elderly, and that the deed’s discovery is exactly something that would have been caught during the months-long ULURP process, which culminates in a City Council vote.

The new lawsuit echoes that concern and contends that the tower—a 1,008-foot supertall planned by JDS Development Group at 247 Cherry Street—violates that deed restriction. It also notes that the same high-rise contains mechanical voids and spaces that add a whopping 324 feet to the building’s height that would not count against its overall footprint.

At the moment, this practice is not against city regulations, but the community groups emphasized that the Department of City Planning has recently submitted a zoning amendment that aims to enact new rules over excessive void space and argues that the Cherry Street building would violate zoning changes the city is mulling.

“It allots nearly 1/3 of the building’s height to mechanical spaces, which is extraordinary and introduces bulk to the neighborhood that provides only impacts and no benefits,” the complaint continues. “Under this new amendment counting inter-building void space as part of the [floor area ratio] analysis, the tower on [247 Cherry Street] would exceed its FAR allotments.”

A key difference in the suit brought forward by area activists compared to the lawmakers’ challenge, is that these neighborhood groups have long-said they believe the towers violate zoning rules and should not be built altogether. Conversely, the City Council and Brewer do not outright oppose the projects but want them to receive greater scrutiny through ULURP.

Either way, the city is emphatic that the proposed towers are a positive for New Yorkers.

“The city stands by its review and approvals for this project which is expected to add hundreds of affordable housing units and improve transit infrastructure for the community,” said Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department. “We will review the case when we are served.”

The developers behind the towers pushed back Friday and stressed that the project will bring a boon of affordable housing to the neighborhood and sorely needed infrastructure improvements including $40 million in upgrades to the East Broadway subway station that will ensure it’s ADA-accessible, $12.5 million in repairs to a nearby NYCHA complex, and $15 million in upgrades to three public parks in the neighborhood.

“At a time when projects delivering tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in community investment are being opposed by anti-development sentiment across the city, it’s important to remember what’s at stake here,” said a statement from a spokesperson for all three buildings. “Without our projects, all that investment goes away. We look forward to the swift resolution of this baseless lawsuit and to starting construction.”