Actually, Maybe You Can Fight City Hall?
Borough President and City Council Member Win Court Round Seeking to Slow Planned Development at Two Bridges
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Margaret Chin were handed a victory on Thursday by the State Supreme Court, when Judge Arthur Engoron ruled in favor of their argument that a cluster of super-tall residential towers proposed for the East River waterfront in Lower Manhattan must be subjected to a full public-review process.
At issue is the approval granted by the City Planning Commission (CPC) of a streamlined review that would have allowed all three of these controversial projects (which include a total of four new towers, reaching as high as 1,000 feet, and housing 2,700 apartments) to avoid the full legal scrutiny of the City’s “uniform land use review procedure” (ULURP), and instead move ahead under a less-rigorous standard of review, limited to an environmental impact statement. This was made possible by the CPC’s determination last December that the addition of four new skyscrapers to the community situated between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges (which would more than triple the number of residences in the area) qualified as a “minor modification” to existing zoning for the neighborhood. If this claim by the CPC (which is controlled by Mayor de Blasio) had been allowed to stand, it would also have preempted the legal authority of the City Council to review, and possibly veto, these projects. Within days of the CPC’s determination, the Borough President and the City Council filed suit against the de Blasio administration.
In their lawsuit, Ms. Brewer and Ms. Chin argued that, “such developments are required to be completed with the consultation and advice of the community, including the New York City Council, the Borough President and the Community Board.” They also charge that, “aside from the clear and incontrovertible statutory requirements mandating the application of ULURP, [the City’s] claim that this application, which includes the addition of more than 2,700 dwelling units in three skyscrapers on a single block, is simply a ‘minor modification’ is nothing short of irrational, arbitrary and capricious and is incorrect as a matter of law.”
Ms. Brewer said shortly after the suit was filed that, “City Planning’s staff and the Commission have exceeded their legal authority. They used a made-up process and made-up standards to approve these towers without the full land use review and Council approval that’s required. I don’t like suing the Mayor or his agencies, but if that’s what it takes to get the residents of Two Bridges the full review and real negotiation they’re entitled to under the law, then I’m all in.”
Ms. Chin added that, “this lawsuit was made necessary by the actions of the Department of City Planning and this Administration. My colleagues and I could not stand by as an entire neighborhood’s worth of rezoning was categorized as a ‘minor modification.’ The residents of Two Bridges deserve a full public review process and I will not rest until they receive it.”
On Thursday, Judge Engoron agreed, ruling that the, “irreparable harm here is two-fold. 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. 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.”
“Judge Engoron’s ruling is a victory for the Two Bridges community and demonstrates the power of everyday New Yorkers when they come together and fight,” Ms. Chin responded . “For three years, we have rallied and petitioned. As a final step, we sued the City to trigger the public review process that the proposed mega towers in Two Bridges demanded. Through it all, I was motivated by a single goal — ensuring that the residents of Two Bridges have a say in the future of their neighborhood.”
Ms. Brewer added that, “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.”
Judge Engoron’s finding is the latest in a string of legal victories for opponents of the Two Bridges developments, including a separate ruling in June that gives a storefront leaseholder on one of the sites effective veto power over the tower that is proposed for the space above the retail location.
In February, Ms. Brewer’s and Ms. Chin’s legal action took on a new dimension, when lawyers representing the Borough President and the City Council uncovered decades-old legal covenants meant to ensure that another of the proposed development sites would remain set aside for the elderly, low income residents, and those with disabilities, in perpetuity. The possible abrogation of this deed restriction, “is akin to the City’s disastrous decision to lift a deed on a parcel of land at the former Rivington House in 2015,” according to revised court papers. This was a reference to the controversial move by the de Blasio administration to sell to a private developer (at a fraction of its market value) a building that had been dedicated to the care of people suffering from AIDS. That developer then closed the facility and sold the building (at a profit of tens of millions of dollars) to another real estate operator, who moved ahead with plans for a market-rate, high-rise condominium.
“Like Rivington, which is in the same Council District as Two Bridges, the lifting of the deed would negatively impact a community struggling to remain affordable for all New Yorkers,” the updated lawsuit alleges.
In March, a separate lawsuit was filed by a coalition of community groups, who allege that the planned developments will cause irreparable harm to their neighborhood. The group, which includes the Lower East Side Organized Neighbors, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, argues in their court filings that the proposed buildings, “are a catalyst for cumulative environmental damage to the broader Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhood and beyond.”
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