Two Bridges tower site was slated to be public playground

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | The site where one of the new Two Bridges residential towers is slated to be built was expected to be a new public playground, according to city documents from more than a decade ago.

The proposed open space was a part of the Department of Environmental Protection’s larger plan to make repairs at the city’s 101-year-old Water Tunnel No. 1 via Water Tunnel Shaft 21.

Under the original plan, once the third water tunnel was completed (expected in the 2020s, according to The New York Times), the lot adjacent to Shaft 21 was going to be used as a maintenance and construction staging area for work on Water Tunnel No. 1.

That plan was approved by the City Planning Commission, Community Board 3 and former Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer — but was conditioned on the west side of the lot at 259 Clinton St. being made into a playground for the Two Bridges neighborhood.

But the city never bought the land, and the playground was never built. A decade later, Starrett Development is proposing a 62-story tower on the same site.

“It looks very shady because the community lost a playground,” said Trever Holland, a longtime Two Bridges Towers resident and member of Tenants United Fighting For Lower East Side a.k.a. TUFF-LES.

D.E.P promised to build the playground, but they “bailed” on that, he added.

“Somehow that just got lost,” he said. “The community sort of never followed up on it. The area actually used to be a playground.”

Design renderings for the beautification of the lot — including a “superstructure” covering the water-shaft site — are still visible on the Web page of the Public Design Commission (formerly known as the Art Commission).

The former 20,000-square-foot playground was in disrepair in the 1990s. Playground equipment was damaged and the asphalt was crumbling, according to D.E.P.’s project proposal description. As a result, the lot’s owners — Land’s End Housing Company, which is currently part of Starrett Development — closed the park in 1997. Today, a chain-link fence still closes off the lot.

As early as 2004, a design for a new open space above and around the water-shaft opening was being honored by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The once-graffiti-covered shed, with a “no floors in this building” sign as a warning to firefighters, was to be remade, entirely. Renderings of the beautification of the lot are still online on the Web page of the city’s Public Design Commission.

Former Borough President Stringer, who is now the city comptroller, noted at the time: “The restoration of the site as a playground and open space will provide an important community benefit for the community district.”

“The borough president recommends that even after playground construction is finished, D.E.P. ensures the playground be maintained so that it does not, once again, fall into disrepair,” Stringer’s 2008 recommendation said.

Stringer approved the overall project. However, his office added that “careful attention should be paid to the terms of the acquisition for the property,” particularly since city-owned property is scarce and it could be an opportunity for developing the site in the public interest.

City Planning, at the time, wrote that the Two Bridges area “has a critical need for usable, well-maintained, high-quality open space, and therefore, strongly urges that D.E.P., or any subsequent city agency or other entity responsible for the playground, assures maximum public access and maintains it at a high standard.”

Back in 2007, during D.E.P.’s application process with City Planning, a lawyer for Starrett, Mark Levine, asked Board 3 to vote against the plan, according to minutes from a December 2007 C.B. 3 meeting.

It is unclear why D.E.P. never purchased the property.

“It’s a bait-and-switch by Starrett,” said Paula Segal, a senior staff attorney for the Community Development Center’s Equitable Neighborhoods Practice.

“It’s pretty cynical for them to now turn around and propose this tower,” she added.

The proposed tower at 259 Clinton St. is part of the Two Bridges Large-Scale Residential Development plan. A total of four new towers are planned as part of the project by three developers.

Segal and others in the neighborhood say the land was ultimately not sold but rented to the city to allow D.E.P. to do its work on the water tunnel. Segal speculates the property owners may have asked too much for the site.

“They must have demanded a price that was out of the city’s range, but then offered the rent location to the city to make the work on the water tunnel possible,” said Segal, who is also counsel to Chinatown activist group CAAAV, as well as Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), TUFF-LES and the Land’s End 1 Tenants Association.

Spokespersons for Starrett and D.E.P. were both unable to explain why the city never bought the space — or confirm if the city ultimately rented it — by press time, saying it would take a little time to track down exactly what transpired more than a decade ago.

A spokesperson for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (another city agency involved in the 2008 project) could not answer why D.E.P. didn’t purchase the site, since the role of D-CAS is to help agencies find property that meets their needs, and it would have ultimately been a D.E.P. decision on whether to buy it.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for City Planning referred questions by The Villager back to D.E.P.

Fast-forward 10 years, Starrett’s 62-story residential tower at 259 Clinton St. is being proposed alongside three other new towers: an 80-story building at 247 Cherry St., by JDS Development Group, along with 62- and 69-story towers at 260 South St., by a partnership of L+M Development Partners and CIM Group.

A breakdown of what will be included in the current plan for the 259 Clinton St. project.

It’s unclear if the unearthing of the long-forgotten commitment to create the playground would have any impact on the Starrett project.

The four skyscrapers are currently under review by the City Planning Commission, which will hold a public hearing Oct. 17. Board 3 is holding a second public hearing on the towers next Tues., Aug. 14.

Two Bridges — the area located in the angle between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges — has long been considered a corner of Manhattan lacking green space.

The Two Bridges neighborhood and surrounding Lower East Side neighborhood has among the lowest number of street trees in Manhattan, according to a 2014 report by Columbia University graduate students. Street trees are a type of green infrastructure that can absorb storm water. A 2010 New Yorkers for Parks assessment of the Lower East Side found that the area had 1.2 acres of open space per 1,000 residents — half of the nonprofit’s proposed neighborhood standards of 2.5 acres per 1,000 residents. That report, however, also includes Lower East Side and East Village neighborhoods up to 14th St., which include East River Park, Tompkins Square Park and numerous community gardens far north of the Two Bridges neighborhood.

Starrett Development’s current plan for 259 Clinton St. includes no new public space — only new private space — despite a previous commitment to create a public park on the site.

The four towers are all being treated as one application in a joint environmental-review process known as a Large-Scale Residential Development proposal.

Under the proposal, as of now, the developers are jointly paying for $15 million worth of upgrades at three existing playgrounds: Coleman Playground, Captain Jacob Joseph Playground and Little Flower Playground.

Since Cherry Clinton and Lillian D. Wald playgrounds are expected to be impacted by shadows cast by the new towers, the developers will pay $50,000 per year over the next 10 years for playground improvements. The open space at Rutgers Slip will also be enhanced.

The only new open spaces that will be created will not be open to the public, including a private courtyard between 265 and 275 Cherry St. and new private open spaces at 247 Cherry St. and 259 Clinton St. Design renderings show these open spaces filled with plantings and seating.

(This article has been updated to correctly state Paula Segal’s position.)

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