Chinatown Residents Sue to Stop Towers

A coalition of Chinatown and Lower East Side residents and organizations has gone to court to void the city’s approval of a mammoth fourtower development planned for the East River waterfront.

The lawsuit, filed March 22 in State Supreme Court by Lower East Side Organized Neighbors, Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Youth Against Displacement, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, and five neighborhood residents, argues that the City Planning Commission’s approval of the Two Bridges development was illegal.

Represented by the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, they argue that building luxury housing on the site, between Rutgers Park and Clinton Street north of the Manhattan Bridge, violates a deed restriction that says part of the property can be used only to house “elderly and handicapped persons of low income, as defined in federal law.” They also contend that the buildings’ size violates zoning regulations for the area.

The Two Bridges development would consist of about 2,775 apartments in four towers from 63 to 80 stories tall. Until this year, the tallest building in the area was 27 stories, the suit says, and many blocks are mostly five- and six-story tenements. Three-fourths of the units would be market-rate. The about 690 “affordable” apartments would have rents ranging from roughly $730 to $2,190 a month for a studio and $1,040 to $3,130 for a two-bedroom.

That would “pose an existential threat to working class communities in Chinatown and the Lower East Side,” Lower East Side Organized Neighbors said in a statement March 22. “These megatowers will trigger displacement, as skyrocketing property values will encourage landlords to harass rentstabilized residents out of their homes and rent commercial space to higher bidders. The shadows of these massive developments will reach past the Bowof over five hours of sunlight.”

The City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer filed a separate suit last October, arguing that the development should go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which requires community input and Council approval. The Department of City Planning has responded that because the area is zoned for large-scale development, Two Bridges does not need to go through ULURP, because the new buildings planned are only a “minor modification.”

But the lawsuit argues that the neighborhood’s zoning for large-scale residential development, established in 1972 and modified in 2013, was intended to permit buildings on the scale of the 16-story La Guardia Houses and the 20-story Rutgers Houses.

It also says that city regulations require considering a project’s effect on socioeconomic conditions as part of its environmental impact. If more than 5 percent of the surrounding area’s population might be indirectly displaced, that qualifies as a potential significant adverse impact.

The City Planning Commission “took a rose-colored glasses look at the problem of gentrification” when it found no indirect residential displacement, the suit says. About 60 percent of tenants in Two Bridges area live in public housing or long-term rent-stabilized housing, it notes.

“The remaining tenants will be faced with landlords anxious to move them out to get tenants who are willing to pay market rate,” it continues. “It’s happening all around Two Bridges, and the new towers will exacerbate and accelerate the rate of change.”

More than 800 luxury condominiums are now on sale in Extell’s 72-story One Manhattan Square tower on the downtown side of the Two Bridges site, and several other luxury buildings are planned or under construction a few block further afield.

Meanwhile, about 50 construction workers protested March 27 outside the Manhattan offices of the CIM Group, a private-equity firm that is one of the developers on the Two Bridges site. The picketers, mainly from the Laborers and Cement and Concrete Workers unions, said CIM regularly hires nonunion contractors with a history of wage theft and safety violations, constructing luxury buildings with workers paid less than half union scale.