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Contested Two Bridges towers must go through city land use review process: judge

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A state Supreme Court judge says the City Planning Commission “simply erred” in approving three major Lower East Side skyscrapers

A digital rendering of four high-rise buildings towering over the Lower East Side of Manhattan along the waterfront.
In a stunning Thursday court ruling, a state judge struck down the controversial towers approval.
SHoP Architects

A New York state Supreme Court judge has dealt a major blow to three developments planned for the Lower East Side waterfront. In a decision rendered on Wednesday, Justice Arthur Engoron vacated the City Planning Commission’s approval for the contested towers in Two Bridges, forcing the developments to go through the city’s lengthy land use review process.

Engoron struck down initial approvals by the CPC for applications to build three luxury developments (by JDS Development Group, CIM Group and L+M Development Partners, and Starrett Development) in the traditionally low-rise, low-income neighborhood. The ruling caps months of legal challenges put forward by the City Council, the Manhattan Borough President, and community groups.

“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,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who was one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, said in a statement.

In the ruling, Engoron said that approving the projects without going through the city’s standard Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) was “somewhat Orwellian” and said the CPC “simply erred” in approving the project without that requirement. The land review process, he said, “is not a draconian penalty,” but will give the City Council and locals a “seat at the table” during the review process.

“The City Council, even aside from having created the Two Bridge [Large Scale Residential Development (LSRD) district], as the City’s legislative branch of government, should have a say in where such a vast intrusion should be allowed into it,” Engoron wrote in his decision.

The crux of the debate is the developers’ application for what the CPC deemed a “minor modification” to raise the skyscrapers in the Two Bridges LSRD. Under the applications, JDS Development Group aims to erect a 1,008-foot rental tower at 247 Cherry Street; CIM and L+M sought to raise a 798-foot two-tower project on a shared base at 260 South Street; and Starrett would have built a 730-foot building at 250 Clinton Street. The developments would house more than 2,700 new units altogether.

But Engoron took issue with CPC’s reading of the project as a “minor” modification.

“Classifying the proposed project (276 total stories, 31,00 total feet high, 2.5 million square feet, 2,775 new dwelling units) as a ‘minor’ modification to the Two Bridges LSRD is somewhat Orwellian (and/or reminiscent of the story about the emperor’s new clothes),” wrote Engoron. “Requiring a 21-story structure to undergo ULURP, but not requiring an 80-story (and 70-story, and 63-story, and 63-story) structure to undergo ULURP, would be the height of irony (pun intended).”

The developers, who have touted their towers as a vessel for 690 units of affordable housing and millions in upgrades to a nearby NYCHA complex and the East Broadway subway stop, ardently disagree with the judge’s ruling and plan to appeal the decision.

“Needless to say, we disagree with the court’s ruling, as these projects were lawfully approved and met all legal requirements,” said a spokesperson for the developers. “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.”

The de Blasio administration is also unsatisfied with the ruling and is mulling legal options.

“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,” Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, said in a statement. “We are considering the city’s legal options.”

In the meantime, elected officials and neighborhood advocates were quick to celebrate the legal win as a victory for the community, and stressed the need for a proper review of the massive buildings.

“The Council has for years said this project—which would totally transform the Two Bridges neighborhood—requires public review and ultimately City Council approval,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement.