Council Chinatown Residents Sue to Stop Four Megatowers on Waterfront

Standing on a corner just north of the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown activist Zishun Ning pointed up at Extell’s 72-story One Manhattan Square tower, which dwarfs the 20-story public-housing buildings across the street.

“Imagine four more if we don’t stop it,” he declared, as more than 200 people rallied in 15-degree temperatures before a march to City Hall.

The Jan. 21 march, organized by the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, was protesting the planned Two Bridges development, four towers ranging from 63 to 80 stories that a group of four developers want to build along the Lower East Side waterfront between Rutgers Park and Clinton Street. The three buildings — one will include a pair of towers on the same base — will contain almost 2,800 apartments, about three-fourths market-rate and 25 percent “affordable.”

The City Planning Commission approved the project in December, saying that because the Chinatown waterfront was zoned in 1972 for “large-scale residential development,” the project could be built “as of right” without first going through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and being subject to a vote of the City Council.

Two separate lawsuits are challenging that approval. The first, filed in October by the council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and updated Jan. 24, argues that the proposal improperly bypassed the ULURP process, which includes advisory votes by community boards, recommendations from the borough president, and final approval by the Council.

The second, on behalf of Lower East Side Organized Neighbors and other groups involved in the Jan. 21 protest, is expected to be filed soon. It will contend that the area being designated for large-scale residential development does not exempt the project from broader zoning laws regulating its impact on light and air in the neighborhood.

A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning responds that there is no legal basis for requiring ULURP: The development complies with the area’s zoning regulations, so it only needed the commission’s approval because it includes new buildings within an existing large-scale development plan—which is technically termed a “minor modification.”

The nearly 700 affordable apartments, the department says, will be the largest “New Construction Affordable Rental” project in the city’s history. The developers will also pay for making the East Broadway subway station wheelchair-accessible and $12.5 million in improvements to public housing in the area.

Of the affordable apartments, two-fifths will be for households making 40 percent of the metropolitan area median income ($29,240 for a single person and $41,720 for a family of four, or rents of roughly $731 a month for a studio and $1,043 for a two-bedroom apartment); two-fifths at 60 percent of AMI (about $1,100 for a studio and $1,565 for a two-bedroom); and one-fifth at 120 percent of AMI (about $2,190 for a s t u d i o a n d $3,130 for a two-bedroom); 200 will be reserved for elderly people.

That’s too expensive for most people in the neighborhood, says Caitlin Kelmar of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. According to the latest U.S. Census data, the median household income in the census tracts surrounding the proposed developments is just over $30,000 a year.

The Council-Brewer suit argues that a project of this size — it will have 2.4 million feet of floor space, double what’s on the site now, and add more apartments than are projected from the rezoning of East Harlem the Council approved in 2017 — should go through ULURP regardless of the local zoning. A spokesperson for Chinatown Councilmember Margaret Chin called it “a neighborhood’s worth of rezoning.”

The updated suit also argues that one of the buildings violates a 1986 deed restriction that its site must be used only to house elderly and lowincome disabled people “in perpetuity.” The project would eliminate 10 such apartments, it says, and force the 19 current tenants to relocate.

The building sites include parking lots and a basketball court, while one building— 247 Cherry St.—will be built over the senior housing at 80 Rutgers St.

The Chinatown activists contend that going through the ULURP process will just extract a few concessions before the project is approved, and want the project halted entirely. “We can’t rely on it to stop these towers,” David Tieu told more than 250 people at a meeting in December.

The ULURP process rarely results in projects being stopped. An exception came in 2016, when Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez announced his opposition to spot rezoning for a 17-story tower in his Inwood/Washington Heights district on the eve of a Land Use committee vote. It’s more common for Councilmembers to win concessions before voting yes, as Rodriguez did with the de Blasio administration’s larger rezoning of Inwood last year.

Ken Kimerling, legal director of the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says that the Lower East Side Organized Neighbors suit will argue that the city’s approval of the plan violates other zoning regulations. The City Planning Commission did not prove that the development won’t impair neighborhood residents’ access to light and air, as required by general zoning codes, says Kimerling.

The towers will accelerate gentrification and the displacement of neighborhood residents, adds Stephanie Kranes of LESON. Building more than 2,000 luxury apartments will drive up property values and encourage speculation, she says, and the “paltry” amount of affordable housing included won’t be enough to compensate for the tenants who will be pushed out of their apartments.

“I am not leaving the Lower East Side,” says Arnette C. Scott, 43, a plaintiff in the suit, who has lived in the same rent-stabilized apartment in the Two Bridges area since 1978. “What I deserve is light and air and a decent place to live.”

Both lawsuits are an “uphill battle,” says Hunter College urban-planning professor Thomas Angotti. The courts are usually reluctant to rule against city agencies, he explains, both for political reasons and out of deference to the agencies’ expertise.

Nevertheless, he believes they’re justified. The Two Bridges development “is a major modification,” he says, and the “large-scale residential development” designation is a scheme “dreamed up to avoid conventional zoning.”

“The Department of City Planning is under the thumb of the mayor who will do anything if there are a few ‘affordable’ housing units at stake, even when most would not be affordable to the low-income people in the Lower East Side and Chinatown,” Angotti said in an email. “They’ve stretched it so far that it violates the basic objectives of the LSRD. They basically interpret it as an invitation to stack up the maximum square feet possible.”

Michael Jackson, an apprentice metallic lather from Ironworkers Local 46 who worked on the Extell building, attended the January 21st protest for a different reason: Two of the developers on the Two Bridges project, JDS Development Group and the CIM Group, commonly use “open shop” contractors who hire a mix of union and nonunion workers—with the latter paid less than half union scale, and often cheated out of pay.

Mayor de Blasio is collaborating with developers “to get rid of unions,” he said. “The city of New York has to get unions on affordable housing.”

The Department of City Planning declined to comment on the union-labor issue.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Gothamist. Reprinted with permission.