State’s Highest Court Rejects Appeal from Community Groups Battling Two Bridges Development
An architectural rendering of the four new residential towers proposed for the Two Bridges neighborhood, which would contain more than 2,700 apartments. The tower at left is already largely complete, while the four to the right have sought permission to begin construction.
On Thursday, the New York State Court of Appeals effectively ended the last of a group of lawsuits begun in 2018, in which elected officials and community groups sought to compel the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to subject several massive residential developments planned for the Lower East Side to the highest-possible degree of legal scrutiny. New York’s highest judicial review panel upheld a prior ruling by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, which itself had overturned a lower-court decision favoring opponents of the projects.
In its Thursday ruling, the Court of Appeals rejected, without further comment, the petitions by two groups—Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side and Lower East Side Organized Neighbors—for a review of the Appellate Division’s previous decisions against them.
At issue was a cluster of super-tall residential towers proposed for the Two Bridges neighborhood of East River waterfront in Lower Manhattan. The central legal dispute focused on the approval granted by the City Planning Commission (CPC) to 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) 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, in December, 2018, 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. This position by the CPC (which is controlled by Mayor de Blasio) preempted the legal authority of the City Council to review, and possibly veto, these projects.
Within days of the CPC’s determination, Manhattan Borough President Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin filed suit against the de Blasio administration, while Tenants United and Lower East Side Organized Neighbors, along with other community organizations, also filed separate legal actions.
The four towers proposed by developers (visible on the right) are described by City Hall as “minor modifications” to nearby (and much smaller) existing structures.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron handed down his original decision in these cases, ruling in favor of Ms. Brewer and Ms. Chin, in August, 2019. He focused upon the issue of whether such large-scale, potentially transformative development qualified as a minor change to the fabric of the community. In this context, he also emphasized the issue of gentrification in Two Bridges, because the City’s environmental review standard allows for consideration of what it calls, “indirect residential displacement,” and whether, “a proposed project may either introduce a trend or accelerate a trend of changing socioeconomic conditions that may potentially displace a vulnerable population to the extent that the socioeconomic character of the neighborhood would change.”
The City argued that because nearly 700 of the new apartments would be set aside as affordable, gentrification in the Two Bridges community would actually be slowed, relative to what would happen if the projects were not built.
Judge Engoron disagreed, 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.” The same judge also subsequently decided in favor of multiple community organizations, who had filed lawsuits on similar grounds.
A schematic from the Municipal Art Society illustrates the impact that the scale of the proposed new developments will have on the existing community of low-rise buildings.
The coalition of three developers who hope to build the towers appealed Judge Engoron’s decisions, however, and were granted a hearing last June, at which two judges pursued a line of questioning that evinced deep skepticism about the lower court’s verdict. Their queries focused on the technical issue of whether a “special permit” approved by the City for Two Bridges neighborhood in 1995 (authorizing a variance in zoning codes) should automatically trigger ULURP when authorizing new projects. By statute, it must—but attorneys for the developers argued that the amount of time that has passed since made the question irrelevant, thus rendering ULURP unnecessary.
The Appellate Division issued its first ruling last August overturning Judge Engoron’s decision in the lawsuit brought by Ms. Brewer and Ms. Chin, and finding that, “the buildings described in the applications did not conflict with applicable zoning requirements and that, therefore, the CPC’s approval of the applications has a rational basis and is not contrary to law.” The decision, written by Associate Justice Ellen Gesmer, continued, “specifically, we find no error in CPC’s determination that the project did not require a special permit, and was therefore not subject to ULURP.” Judge Gesmer also noted that, “in reaching this result, we are mindful of petitioners’ concerns that their constituents have had limited input on the proposed development’s potential effects on their neighborhood, including increased density, reduced open space and the construction of a large number of luxury residences in what has been a primarily working class neighborhood of low- to medium-rise buildings. However, existing law simply does not support the result petitioners seek.”
In February, the Appellate Division reversed another decision by Judge Engoron, in which he had ruled in favor of Tenants United and Lower East Side Organized Neighbors, as they sought to nullify the CPC’s approval of the Two Bridge’s developments.
The Thursday ruling from the Court of Appeals appears to extinguish the last resort to the courts by opponents of the Two Bridges. Representatives of Tenants United and Lower East Side Organized Neighbors have said they intend to continue their legal campaign, but it is unclear how this will be possible when all legal remedies appear to have been exhausted.
A Fresh Perspective on a Fresh Start
Alliance Assigns Digital Anthropologist to Document Downtown’s Rebirth
In March, 2020, just as the corona-pocalypse was gathering momentum, the Downtown Alliance put out a nationwide call to recruit an Explorer in Chief, whose job would be to spend June, July, and August of last year documenting the experience of life in Lower Manhattan across a variety of media. This invitation drew more than 700 eager applicants from 40 states and more than 30 nations—all vying for a gig that was dubbed a “Dream Job.”
“When we began developing this position,” Alliance president Jessica Lappin says, “COVID-19 didn’t exist. After we started accepting applications, the world changed overnight. As a result, so did the contest. This whole experience took on a new dimension as our neighborhood started down a path of recovery, and we’re confident that Josh Katz is the right adventurous soul to help the world discover Lower Manhattan anew.”
City and State Prosecutors Team Up on Criminal Probe of Trump Finances at FiDi Landmark
In a story first reported by the Washington Post, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance has expanded his longstanding probe of the finances of former President Donald Trump to include possible criminal charges. The office of New York State Attorney General Leticia James is also cooperating with Mr. Vance’s criminal investigation. To read more…
Exercise in disguise! Join in on the fun featuring easy-to-follow Latin dance choreography while working on your balance, coordination and range of motion. Come prepared for enthusiastic instruction, a little strength training, and a lot of fun. Participants are expected to bring their own equipment: weights, water bottle, hand towel, etc. Masks required. Participants must maintain six feet of physical distance between households. All programs will be held in accordance with New York State reopening guidance. Battery Park City Authority
During trying times, music stills our souls and provides a healing grace. Throughout the season of Lent, Comfort at One will present performances that are inspired by the Gandhi quote: “In the midst of darkness, light persists.” These concerts include improvisations by Julian Wachner, light-inspired Bach cantatas, our 2014 Lenten “Lamentatio” series featuring NOVUS NY and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, new performances from the Trinity Youth Chorus and St. Paul’s Chapel Choir, and new virtual content on Fridays from our extended family of artists.
Skyscraper Museum webinar. In her new book, Prof. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis applies an archeological lens to the study of the New York buildings. Antiquity in Gotham explores how the language of ancient architecture communicated the political ideals of the young Republic through the adaptation of Greek and Roman architecture; how Egyptian temples conveyed the city’s new technological achievements; and how the ancient Near East served many artistic masters, decorating the interiors of glitzy Gilded Age restaurants and the tops of skyscrapers. Rather than emphasizing a battle of styles, the Neo-Antique framework considers the similarities and differences—intellectually, conceptually, and chronologically—amongst the reception of these architectural traditions. Free
Community Board 1’s Transportation & Street Activity Permits Committee
2) Special Considerations for Student Dropoffs and Pickups at the Titus School – Presentation by Natalie Brandefine, MSED, Founder, The Titus School LLC
3) DOT Updates – Presentation by Jennifer Leung, DOT
‘A Whimsical Oasis’
Little Island Opens to Rave Reviews
The Lower West Side of Manhattan officially has another stunning public space: On Friday morning, the Hudson River Park Trust debuted Little Island, the new park located just off the shoreline, at 13th and West Streets. The park offers more than two acres of gardens, glades, lawns, performance spaces and picnic grounds.
All of this greenery is hoisted above the water by 280 slender concrete columns, driven hundreds of feet down into the riverbed, and supporting 132 flower-shaped masonry “tulips”—pods that appear to be separate platforms from outside Little Island, but form a continuous, undulating surface when seen from the inside. Each of these structural bulbs is a different size, shape, and elevation.
As we come out of covid, it’s clear the city’s thriving cultural scene is on its way back — and Lower Manhattan’s leading the way.
In May, the Downtown Alliance teamed up with En Garde Arts and + The Tankto present Downtown Live, a multi-weekend festival stocked with live performances ranging from music to theater to spoken poetry. The revival of Downtown’s cultural scene continues into June, with the return of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival.
The festival, which runs June 10–June 27, joins the explosion of post-vaccine outdoor events and art exhibits that are set to take over the city this summer. Here are five acts you won’t want to miss, and visit lmcc.net/river-to-river-festival for the full schedule.
Opening Concert featuring Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington and Leo Genovese (June 10)
Spalding is a jazz musician who made waves when she beat out Drake and Justin Bieber to win the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011. Since then she’s won three other Grammys and has been labeled the “21st century jazz genius” by NPR.
Processions with Miguel Gutierrez, Okwui Okpokwasili and The Illustrious Blacks
(June 13, 20, 25)
Artist Okwui Okpokwasili is following up her recent piece on the High Line called “On the way, undone” with another processional performance, which means you get to participate in the art. Okpokwasili’s performance will happen at Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City on June 20, followed by processions led by choreographer Gutierrez and musical duo the Illustrious Blacks will also conduct processions on June 13 and June 25.
Kamau Ware, Land of the Blacks (June 10-27)
Black history scholar and co-found of Black Gotham Experience Kamau Ware is writing an original piece on “Land of the Blacks,” 28 Black-owned farmsteads that once covered a swath of Lower Manhattan. It will debut on the River to River website.
Womxn in Windows (June 15-27)
Womxn in Windows is a multi-part video installation installed in Windows across the Seaport District. They’ll focus on the confluence of culture and society in an exploration of the multi-faceted female identity, created by artists from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Mariana Valencia, Futurity (June 25-27)
Choreographer and performer Mariana Valencia brings a 2021 version of Futurity, a dance performance that will transmit the queer stories of elders in Greenwich Village from the 1960s to the present.
CLASSIFIEDS & PERSONALS
Swaps & Trades, Respectable Employment, Lost and Found
The Battery Park City Authority asks that the public not interact with or feed the urban wildlife in the neighborhood’s parks and green spaces, and at the waterfront.
Multiple New Bikes Lanes Coming to Lower Manhattan, Adding to Growing Local Network
The City’s Department of Transportation will begin this month implementing a plan—first approved in the spring last year, but delayed by the onset of the pandemic coronavirus—to add more bike lanes to the Lower Manhattan’s streetscape.
Two new physically segregated bicycle thoroughfares will be constructed in the next few weeks: a southbound connection linking Varick Street to West Broadway, and a northbound route via Church Street and Sixth Avenue.
Also coming soon is a protected section of Centre Street—a stretch that will connect Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan to Tribeca and Chinatown. To read more…
9/11 Victim Compensation Fund Report
More Survivors than Responders Now are Submitting Claims
The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) has released its annual report for 2020, which documents some significant developments.
Over the course of its ten years of operation thus far, the VCF has awarded $7.76 billion to more than 34,400 individuals who have suffered death or personal injury as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. The vast majority of these injuries take the form of illness caused by exposure to toxic materials that were released by the destruction of the World Trade Center.