Opponents of massive building projects along the East River waterfront were dealt a setback on Wednesday, when the City Planning Commission (CPC) approval proposals for three large residential developments in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, located on the shore of the East River, roughly between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges.
It is in this area that three developers are seeking permission to erect four buildings ranging between 700 and 1,000 feet in height, and varying from 62 up to 80 stories. The buildings will bring nearly 3,000 new apartments to a sparsely populated community in the space of three years, which is more development than Two Bridges has experienced in the previous three decades.
At issue is what legal category the four super-tall towers 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.
An architect’s 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 right are currently seeking permission to build.)
A preliminary draft of that environmental impact statement was issued in June, with a preliminary nearing to review it scheduled for a few days later, and a final hearing slated for September. This ignited a firestorm of criticism, amid charges that the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio was trying to stampede the approval process without adequate review. After pushback led by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin, the CPC agreed to move the preliminary hearing to October, with the final determination on the issue of whether the proposed new developments were indeed minor modifications was scheduled for Wednesday.
At the September hearing, Ms. Chin said, “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. 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.”
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.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer at the same hearing: “City Planning 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.”
On Wednesday, the CPC gathered to issue a final determination about these issues. Signaling the direction that the panel (which is controlled by Mayor de Blasio) was about to take, Commission chair Marisa Lago said, “in a city at peak population and bursting at the seams, adding significant amounts of new housing in Lower Manhattan is a truly rare opportunity.” The CPC then voted to allow the developments to proceed.
Both Ms. Chin and Ms. Brewer were quick to respond. “Conversations about development and land use are often hidden behind jargon,” Ms. Chin said. “However, it’s important that we be crystal clear about what the Mayor and the City Planning Commission have done today in Two Bridges, an enclave in the Lower East Side characterized by its many working-class, immigrant, and senior residents living in affordable housing built as part of an urban renewal plan. Today, Mayor de Blasio’s City Planning Commission voted to approve three new developments that will overwhelm this neighborhood, over our opposition and that of the neighborhood’s Community Board and its representatives in the State Assembly, State Senate, and Congress.”
“The rules governing these blocks are laid out in the Two Bridges Large-Scale Residential Development Permit,” Ms. Brewer added. “To change these rules or get an exemption from them, you are supposed to go through a full land-use review, including input from the Borough President and, ultimately, approval from the City Council. Mayor de Blasio’s City Planning Commission just voted to advance these applications without that review, claiming they are only a ‘minor modification’ to the site.” She continued, “this practice of exempting ‘minor modifications’ from the full approval process has no basis in law. There is simply no rule written anywhere that allows this.”
City Council member Margaret Chin at a City Planning Commision hearing in October: “I am here today as part of the fight to save a neighborhood.”
“There is no universe where these towers could be considered a ‘minor modification,'” Ms. Chin argued. “This so-called ‘minor modification’ would triple the number of apartments in the neighborhood and quadruple the maximum allowable height to over a thousand feet, resulting in a new building that would be the seventh tallest in the entire city, almost as tall as the Chrysler Building.”
“We’re not against any and all development in Two Bridges or anywhere else,” Ms. Brewer observed. “But rules either exist or they don’t. This is a neighborhood rezoning’s worth of housing, and it’s a wild departure from what the current rules allow. Two Bridges residents deserve the same rights, the same negotiation, and the same level of investment from the City that the residents of East Harlem, Inwood, Far Rockaway, East New York, Jerome Avenue, and other communities facing neighborhood rezonings are given.”
“The de Blasio Administration’s insistence that these massive towers must move forward without a real review or negotiation is unlawful, and we are exploring all available options to oppose these developments,” Ms. Chin concluded.
The Two Bridges neighborhood has long been an enclave of affordability, with numerous apartment 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 eyes this area acquisitively — in part because several of these affordable buildings were also built with parking lots large enough to accommodate new residential towers.
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