Scan the Lower East Side waterfront and the first thing you’re likely to spot is a 72-story skyscraper known as One Manhattan Square jutting high above the neighborhood.
It may appear conspicuously misplaced among the area’s low-slung apartment buildings and public housing complexes, but the luxury condo tower was allowed under the property’s existing zoning, and its skyline-altering presence serves as a preview for its mostly low-income immigrant neighbors of what’s to come if three more towers are allowed to rise on the Two Bridges waterfront.
But that vision, for now, has ground to a halt. In two recent court rulings, state Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron struck down the City Planning Commission’s December 2018 approvals for the soaring buildings planned by a cadre of developers (JDS Development Group, CIM Group, L+M Development Partners, and Starrett Development). Those rulings, which the developers say they aim to appeal, mandate that the planning commission determine how the structures would impact the surrounding area according to a specific zoning provision (ZR 78-313) before green-lighting the towers.
Under the court’s findings, if the developers want to push forward with their existing plans they’d have to show that the residential towers—including a supertall that would soar more than 1,000 feet—would not “unduly increase the bulk of buildings, density of population, or intensity of use in any block” and that, among other things, they would not “impair the essential character of the surrounding area,” according to the city’s zoning code. That could be a tall order for the developers, opponents argue.
“It’s a very significant ruling if it in fact leads to where we think it should, which is stopping these towers that would decimate this community and make it a totally different place,” says Ken Kimerling, the legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who represents a coalition of local groups and residents in one of the lawsuits against the towers. The court reached the same conclusion in another lawsuit filed by a separate set of community and tenant groups.
“If you look at the application for these 70 [and] 80 story towers, the answer is obvious: there’s no way a community that’s trying to provide housing and services for low-income and blue-collar workers would be able to survive,” says Kimerling.
The two community-driven lawsuits—respectively led by Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side (TUFF-LES) and Lower East Side Organized Neighbors’ (LESON)—build upon a July ruling in a third lawsuit brought by the City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer that halts the towers until they undergo a lengthy public review process called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, better known as ULURP.
The crux of the debate is that the developers’ plans should not be allowed in the Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Development district under what was deemed a “minor modification”—a designation Engoron called “somewhat Orwellian.” That application allowed the City Planning Commission to have the final word on the project approvals, but under the land use review process, the City Council would cast the final vote on the towers. The developers and the city are in the midst of appealing that ruling.
If the towers come to plan, JDS Development Group would erect a 1,008-foot rental tower at 247 Cherry Street; CIM and L+M would raise a 798-foot two-tower project on a shared base at 260 South Street; and Starrett would build a 730-foot building at 250 Clinton Street. The developments would house more than 2,700 new units altogether, including 690 permanently below-market rate units, and would also come with $40 million in upgrades to the East Broadway subway station, $12.5 million in repairs to a nearby NYCHA complex, and $15 million in upgrades to three area parks. The developers have staunchly defended their projects and maintain that their approvals are legally sound.
“We of course disagree with the court’s rulings, as these projects were lawfully approved, met all legal requirements, and are in compliance with zoning that’s been in place for more than 30 years,” a spokesperson for the developers said in a statement. “We will appeal these rulings in the near future.”
But if a trio of community groups get their way, the area’s zoning will change to make towers such as these a nonstarter. “The ruling gives us more momentum to pursue our rezoning plan,” says Trever Holland, a board member of TUFF-LES. “You need these victories to keep things going.”
Last summer, TUFF-LES, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, and Good Old Lower East Side filed preliminary documents to rezone a six-block stretch of Two Bridges with the Department of City Planning. Their plan would enact a “Special Lower East Side and Chinatown Waterfront District” in an area stretching from Catherine to Montgomery streets, between South and Cherry streets, that would encompass all of the planned towers.
If the proposed changes become part of the city’s zoning rules, all new buildings on those blocks would be capped at 350 feet—roughly 35 stories—and require half of the units in new residential construction be permanently affordable. That translates to 20 percent of those units set aside for residents earning up to 30 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), 20 percent dedicated to those making between 30 and 50 percent of the AMI, and 10 percent for those earning 60 to 80 percent of the AMI, draft planning documents obtained by Curbed show. As of 2017, the median household income for the Lower East Side was just over $40,000, according to data from NYU’s Furman Center. The special district, among other provisions, would also limit ground floor uses in mostly residential buildings to “neighborhood-oriented retail.”
Attorney Paula Segal of TakeRoot Justice, who represents the groups behind the rezoning plan, also notes that the court’s ruling makes it less onerous to pursue the zoning changes because they can be written with the implication that the towers won’t be built.
If the rezoning progresses, city planners will certify the application and it will enter the ULURP process; the applicants aim to pass the changes by 2022. But that effort has a long road ahead of it, and zoning proposals are big lifts for community groups that typically can’t afford to hire professional planners to hone their proposals. That’s why the groups behind the special district are pushing the Council and Manhattan Borough President’s office to kick in land use staff who can lend a hand—like in Morningside Heights, where the Council is helping locals craft a neighborhood rezoning proposal.
But the Council and Brewer both say that their current priority is ensuring that their lawsuit is not overturned in an appeal. “I want to let the whole process play itself out before I get involved with anything else,” says Brewer. “I’m supportive of the concept but we worked hard on this lawsuit; I’m not jeopardizing it. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
And not everyone is on the same page about next steps for the area. The special district is based off a specific component of the Plan for Chinatown and the Surrounding Areas, which was created in 2013 by an assemblage of community groups known as the Chinatown Working Group. That plan was shot down by the Department of City Planning—over concerns about the breadth of the proposal—but now that the towers eyed for Two Bridges are on the edge of a proverbial cliff, some locals are pushing for a comprehensive rezoning vision for the Lower East Side and Chinatown.
“We need to protect all of the Lower East Side and all of Chinatown, not just the waterfront,” says Tony Quey Lin, a member of LESON and an individual plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. “There’s no reason that this can’t be passed, and now is the time to do it.”
But the fabric of the Two Bridges area is under imminent threat, says Holland, and moving forward with a smaller, more focused plan may make it an easier sell to city planning officials. It could also open the door to more zoning changes down the road, he says.
“I think we’re starting the process and we’re doing it where the community is the most vulnerable now,” says Holland. “There’s a fire going on in Two Bridges [and] the fire is right here, right now.”