The Two Bridges neighborhood (so named because it is situated along the East River waterfront, roughly between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges) has long been an enclave of affordability, with numerous housing buildings set aside for poor, disabled, or elderly residents.
But as a frenzy of development that has overtaken Lower Manhattan in recent years, real estate interests began to eye this area acquisitively, because several of these affordable buildings also have parking lots large enough to accommodate new residential towers. Four such towers, ranging between 700 and 1,000 feet in height, varying from 62 up to 80 stories, and housing a total of more than 2,700 apartments, are now planned for these parking lots.
On Wednesday, the City Planning Commission held a hearing about these proposals, at which Ms. Chin and Ms. Brewer both testified.
“I am here today as part of the fight to save a neighborhood,” Ms. Chin began. “If approved, these applications would destroy this neighborhood. And it would do so without any real public review from the Community Board, the Borough President’s Office or the City Council.”
This was a reference to the fact that all four proposed towers are being evaluated under a looser standard than is customary for major new developments. At issue is what legal category the four super-tall buildings planned for the Two Bridges area should fall into. In 2016, Carl Weisbrod, the de Blasio administration’s then-City Planning chief said that under existing zoning laws, the proposed buildings qualified as “minor modifications” to the existing parking lots on which they are slated to be built. This interpretation would allow all four buildings to evade the full legal scrutiny of the City’s “uniform land-use review procedure” (ULURP), and comply only with the far-less rigorous requirements of submitting an “enhanced environmental impact statement.” Unlike ULURP, the environmental impact statement process does not provide for any City veto power over a proposed development.
City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer at the Department of City Planning where they filed an application to modify development rules governing the Two Bridges neighborhood.
Shortly afterward, on a Friday in June, the de Blasio administration released its EIS for the projects. The document ran to more than 700 pages, but the CPC scheduled a hearing to evaluate for the following Monday, with a final hearing slated for September. This timeline meant that Community Board 3 (which oversees the Two Bridges area) would have no time to evaluate the document before the CPC hearing. Additionally, because CB3 doesn’t meet in August, this would have left as few as 17 working days for the panel to review the document, formulate a response, and convey it to City officials before the September hearing. (The law requires that a local community board be given 60 calendar days to conduct such a review, but the statute ignores the issue of truncated work schedules during summer.)
After Ms. Chin and Ms. Brewer led protest rallies about this schedule, the CPC relented and agreed to push back the hearing originally slated for September, rescheduling it for October. It was that hearing at which Ms. Chin and Ms. Brewer testified on Wednesday.
“I ask that the Commission be given the opportunity to provide a pathway for the community and its elected representatives to have a say in the fate of the Two Bridges neighborhood,” Ms. Chin said. “Despite the diligent efforts of the City Council and the Borough President’s office, the Department of City Planning has decided not to allow our application for a Text Amendment, which would establish a Special Permit that would require a ULURP, to move forward. I ask that the Department reconsider this decision, and give Commissioners the chance to weigh the merits of our proposal.”
“I believe the Environmental Impact Statement accompanying these applications does not adequately address the negative effects on the already strained infrastructure of an area underserved by transit, retail amenities and open space,” she continued. “Moreover, it does not begin to account for the wave of primary and secondary displacement that will ripple through surrounding neighborhoods for years to come.”
“In stark contrast to our Text Amendment, the applications being heard today put Commissioners in a difficult position as the deciders of the fate of an entire neighborhood,” Ms. Chin added. “Our Text Amendment to establish a Special Permit does not preclude reasonable development in this area. It merely gives this community a voice in the planning process for their neighborhood. In addition, it removes a dangerous precedent that should be of concern to other vulnerable neighborhoods in our City.”
Ms. Brewer said, “CPC has the opportunity to send these plans back, restart this process, and do it the right way — with real community input. I suggest they take that opportunity.”
Around the time that CPC pushed back its hearing date for the EIS, the developers of the proposed towers announced a new round of inducements designed to cushion the impact of the new towers upon the community, and mollify opposition. The centerpiece of their proposal was a $40 million renovation of the nearest subway station (the East Broadway stop on the F line), which would create a new entrance and make the station handicapped-accessible. Other incentives include proposals to renovate three nearby playgrounds and fund $15 million in upgrades to three local public schools. Perhaps the most substantive concession to local concerns is that the developers plan to make almost 700 of the new apartments (25 percent of the total) affordable to residents with low and moderate incomes.