Two Bridges towers’ impacts would be too much, residents cry

At the Oct. 17 City Planning Commission hearing, Two Bridges-area residents protested against the four-tower megaproject slated for their neighborhood. Photos by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | In a pivotal moment for the Two Bridges neighborhood, more than 100 people signed up to testify about four mammoth proposed high-rise towers at a City Planning hearing on Wed., Oct. 17.

Most slammed the projects as poorly planned, saying the towers would ramp up gentrification in the transit-deprived angle between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Downtown politicians have called for a lengthier public review that would give the City Council a vote on the megaproject.

“There’s a right way to do development and a wrong way, and we firmly believe this is the wrong way,” MyPhuong Chung, chairperson of Community Board 3’s Land Use Committee, said in her testimony.

Opponents derided how the towers would block light and air and decrease the per capita open-space ratio in the neighborhood. Others argued — contrary to the developers’ impact statement findings — that sewage overflow would occur if the towers’ 2,775 new units were added to the neighborhood.

Myriad groups showed up, including residents, tenant organizers and members of Community Board 3 and a union, Local 46 Metallic Lathers and Reinforcing Ironworkers, whose members slammed the CIM Group and JDS Development for histories working with troubled contractors. Meahwhile, another union, 32BJ SEIU service workers, has repeatedly testified in support of the towers for around 50 jobs the buildings would supply.

The projects include an 80-story building at 247 Cherry St., by JDS Development Group; 62- and 69-story towers at 260 South St., by L+M Development Partners and the CIM Group; and a 63-story tower at 259 Clinton St., by Starrett Group.

The developers have touted the affordable units in the projects as a major community benefit, along with $55 million in transit and open-space improvements they would provide, plus added retail space and some resiliency floodproofing measures.

“The three proposed projects will deliver approximately 700 much-needed units of permanently affordable housing, representing one of the largest infusions of affordable housing in Manhattan in decades and a critical addition amid the ongoing housing crisis,” the developers said in a joint statement.

The nearly 700 affordable apartments would be available to households earning 40, 60 and 120 percent of the area median income, or A.M.I.

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou pointed out in her six-page testimony that the affordable housing portion would be for three-person households making between $37,560 and $112,680 a year. However, the median annual household income for the proposed project area is just above $30,500. The spot is also in a floodplain, which is expected to grow in the coming decades.

“Even for the lowest range of affordable options…it would be impossible for many of our families to even be eligible to apply,” Niou stated. “It is critical that the city protect the current stock of affordable housing and secure additional affordable housing units. But the city should also take into consideration what ‘affordability’ truly means.”

C.B. 3’s Chung argued for a more extreme affordable units scheme, in which 90 percent of units would range between less than 30 percent of A.M.I. up to 80 percent of A.M.I. Under Chung’s proposal, for a three-person household, those incomes would range from $28,170 to $75,120.

SHoP Architects’ Gregg Pasquarelli, whose firm is partnering with JDS Development on the project, referenced several waterfront developments as parallels to the Two Bridges project — including developments in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, 550 Washington St.  in Hudson Square, Murray Hill’s American Copper Buildings and Hunter’s Point South in Long Island City.

“When all buildings are the same height, it greatly diminishes what is uniquely New York about New York,” he said. “We believe this will create a vibrant, beautiful, equitable and appropriate skyline.”

The audience scoffed at this idea, and even Anna Hayes Levin, a City Planning commissioner, said Two Bridges is entirely different from those sites.

“The thing that’s different, for the most part, those were industrial areas,” Levin said. “We’re in a different environment than the other ones that you used to argue the appropriateness of the scale here.”

Residents and organizers repeatedly criticized the finding of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or D.E.I.S., that no indirect displacement would occur due to the towers. For Lower East Siders well familiar with how frequent tenant harassment and eviction efforts are, that finding is questionable, tenant organizers said.

About 300 eviction notices were filed between 2013 and 2015 in the neighborhood, according to a ProPublica investigation that Chung cited. At least 135 of those were at 82 Rutgers Slip alone, which is the building that would neighbor JDS Development’s building at 247 Cherry St. That proposed project will cantilever over 80 Rutgers Slip, resulting in residents from up to 19 apartments having to relocate, though it is likely they will remain in other units at 80 Rutgers Slip, and eventually, 10 will relocate into units in the new building.

At the Oct. 17 hearing, Trever Holland, an 82 Rutgers Slip tenant leader and a founder of Tenants United Fighting for Lower East Side, or TUFF-LES, admitted he has received at least two eviction notices from his building’s nonprofit owners, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

The claims that displacement wouldn’t impact the existing community “really began to irk me,” said Holland, who had previously not shared his story to avoid scaring other tenants.

“I just decided to say it to get it out there,” he said of his testimony. Two other tenant association leaders also received such notices, Holland said.

Victor Papa, president of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, denied Holland’s charge as “categorically untrue.”

The D.E.I.S. finding of no indirect displacement is rooted in a flawed methodology, known as the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) Technical Manual, which excludes rent-stabilized or other types of subsidized apartments from being considered vulnerable to displacement due to major projects, according to opponents of the project, a recent Pratt Center report and even some of the City Planning commissioners.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen plenty of examples in rezonings where the assumed protections of rent-stabilized units…isn’t really borne out by the marketplace,” Levin said. “So there’s good reason to be cautious, but I also understand CEQR says what CEQR says.”

That methodology, said Larisa Ortiz, another Planning commissioner, also lacks updated ways of measuring transportation impacts, which the D.E.I.S. found minimal. Developers said in July that transportation mitigations would include signal-timing change, restriping lanes and widening crosswalks at up to 10 intersections.

Ortiz argued that transportation alternatives like Citi Bike and for-hire cab services should be considered when evaluating transportation impacts.

“This morning, at 10:51, I went online to see how many Citi Bikes were available within a half-mile radius of the site, and there were zero Citi Bikes available,” Ortiz said. “We do know that the CEQR methodology is flawed in this respect, in that transportation, in particular, has evolved since that methodology was developed.”

Anne Locke of AKRF, the firm that conducted the environmental review, admitted, “I think with the new development, there’s more chance there will be Citi Bike stands in this area.”

As far as for-hire vehicle apps, Locke said: “Uber and Lyft [have] not made their way into the CEQR manual.”

Though some Planning commissioners said the D.E.I.S. methodology is flawed, some feared the projects would be “rubber-stamped,” regardless.

“I was happy and surprised [the commissioners] were critical,” Holland said, “but I have to pause there and say, what does that mean over all?

“I don’t want this to be the test case for how things should’ve been done,” he said. “I want them to use this particular case, which I think is a very good case, and say, ‘O.K., we’re going to do something about this now.’”

Many expect lawsuits to follow the Oct. 17 hearing. But City Planning’s vote — which has not yet been scheduled — will be the final O.K. for now.

After an apparent lull in communication between the developers and Community Board 3, the D.E.I.S. was suddenly released in late June, leaving residents who have been fighting the towers scrambling. Under the technical guidelines, the projects are being reviewed as only “minor modifications” to the Two Bridges Large-Scale Residential Development area, or LSRD. This procedure effectively gives City Planning the final vote to approve the plan.

To slow the project or at least gain leverage, Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin have filed a text amendment with City Planning to force the plan through the lengthier review process — Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP — which would give the Council a binding vote on it. They filed the amendment in January, but the commission has yet to review it.

“I really am horrified that City Planning is allowing a project of this magnitude to proceed without adequate public review,” Brewer said.

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