On Thursday, opponents of three Lower East Side towers celebrated a court ruling that blocks construction until those developments go through the city’s lengthy public review process. But the victory lap quickly shifted to a clear message: the fight is not over.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron sent the developers behind a trio of luxury skyscrapers back to square one of the review process. The decision comes in response to a lawsuit put forward by the City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer that calls for the high-rises to go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)—which is one of three lawsuits challenging the buildings.
Engoron has yet to rule in the other two cases, which were each filed by a coalition of community groups seeking to vacate the City Planning Commission’s (CPC) December approval of the “minor modification” projects, but their organizers are already mobilizing to alter the neighborhood’s zoning and aim to block the towers from rising altogether with fundamental changes to the area’s zoning.
“There’s a lot of ways in which we’ve already won. The community has already won because we’ve stood together to really fight for this neighborhood,” says Melanie Wang, an organizer with CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. “But we have bigger fish to fry. Fundamentally, in order to protect the neighborhood we can’t just use these tools, we’ve got to change the laws about what can be built here.”
In July, community groups CAAAV, Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side (TUFF-LES), and Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) filed a rezoning application with the Department of City Planning (DCP) that targets an area spanning from Catherine to Montgomery streets, between South and Cherry streets for changes.
Those boundaries include the contested buildings (backed by JDS Development Group, CIM Group, L+M Development Partners, and Starrett Development) and would revive elements of a previously proposed community rezoning known as the Chinatown Working Group plan, which sought to create a special district in a swath of the Lower East Side and Chinatown to maintain the neighborhood’s affordability and limit its density while encouraging the development of affordable housing.
Under the new rezoning application, all proposed buildings would be capped at 350 feet (or 35 stories) and require up to 55 percent of residential units be set aside as affordable housing. Income brackets have yet to be set, but organizers say they’re shooting for the city’s classification of extremely low and very low income (which translates to 0-30 and 31-50 percent of the area median income [AMI], respectively).
Comparatively, the tallest of the proposed Two Bridges towers would rise to a whopping 100 stories, and the smallest would be some 70 stories. All told, 25 percent of the 2,775 units would be set aside as affordable—with at least 10 percent of those apartments with rents up to 40 percent of the AMI, 10 percent at 60 percent AMI, and 5 percent at 120 percent of the median income.
If the community-group led zoning changes are enacted, it would make projects such as these a non-starter for the Two Bridges waterfront.
“Once those changes are put into effect any new construction in this area will have to conform to the residents vision as it was developed,” says Paula Segal, an attorney with TakeRoot Justice who is working with the community groups on the rezoning and also represents TUFF-LES in the lawsuit against the proposed skyscrapers. “What we’re looking at now would simply not be permitted because the buildings are too tall and they don’t provide enough affordable housing.”
The rezoning proposal is currently in the environmental review process with no fixed timeline of when those changes would be certified by DCP, according to the agency. Segal anticipates the application will be certified by the end of the year.
Residents who support the plan are quick to point out that they are not anti-development, but merely want a seat at the table in ensuring construction is in context with the neighborhood and the affordable housing needs of the community.
“We’re talking about smaller buildings that are not massively large like the Extell tower,” says Julian Morales, the director of organizing with Good Old Lower East Side. “It’s still large development without a doubt, but it also includes a much higher levels of affordable housing and actually deep affordable housing that folks in the community can afford.”
Longtime locals say the zoning changes strike a healthy balance between preserving the neighborhood’s essence and encouraging new development.
“There’s so many changes going on and it’s good to have the neighborhood be better, I understand that, but there has to be some sort of limitation,” says lifelong Lower East Sider Ishmael Alvarado, who lives at 82 Rutger Slip, which would neighbor JDS Development’s high-rise at 247 Cherry Street. “Let’s have mid-rise buildings, not huge 80-story towers that loom over us.”
Justice Engoron seemed to agree in his ruling released Thursday, declaring that the towers as planned would cause “irreparable harm” to the neighborhood and must go through the ULURP process for further review.
“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 wrote in his decision. “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.”
In nullifying prior approvals for the towers, Engoron also ruled that no permits can be issued for the projects and that no construction can begin on the sites before the developments go through the months-long ULURP.
Others still argue that the ULURP process is “inaccessible and opaque to any community concerns” and want plans for the towers thrown out completely, charging that the structures violate the neighborhood’s current zoning. Elected officials and neighborhood activists contend that one of the proposed developments would violate a 32-year-old deed restriction meant to permanently ensure housing for low income residents with disabilities and the elderly.
“The community is not deceived into believing that a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure is any kind of victory,” the Lower East Side Organized Neighbors and the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side said in a statement—both are plaintiffs in one of the suits against the towers. “The stakes could not be higher, and no amount of concessions will reduce the fatal blow four skyscrapers will be to the Two Bridges area and the neighborhood at large.”
But the developers and the de Blasio administration disagree, and both say legal options are on the table against the judge’s ruling in the first of the three lawsuits. A spokesperson for the developers say they plan to appeal the 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,” Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, said in a statement. “We are considering the city’s legal options.”