OPINION: Architecture of hell on the Lower East Side

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | Among the many horrors of overdevelopment we face in Lower Manhattan, the most heartbreaking has to be the vision of a dystopic future seen in the renderings of a series of projects slated for Two Bridges. These megaprojects would radically and irrevocably alter this Lower East Side neighborhood along the East River, between the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges.

One tower is already up, four more are to come. You know the drill: They are over-scaled, corporate, anonymous and painful to look at. And they’re packed to the gills with private amenities designed to allow the wealthy to separate themselves from the rest of us 24/7, 365 days a year.

Three new megatower developments — with a total of four actual towers — are slated for the Two Bridges area. The copper-colored building closest to the Manhattan Bridge has already been erected and finishing construction on it is currently being done.

These towers will do nothing to alleviate the housing shortage for those at the bottom of the housing market. That’s because the projects’ displacement effects will dwarf the number of moderate-income units that come baked into the deal. So, is it worth it? No way.

It’s a great unmeasurable folly to limit our judgment of such monster projects to the number of pretend “affordable” housing units they create.

It is just and normal to also judge these projects on other criteria: the civic values they embody, the degree to which they enrich an oligarchic developer class, the livability and joys of the neighborhood that are destroyed versus created, the superior alternatives foregone, the shadows these behemoths cast, and the pleasure or pain they give our eyes when we gaze upon them.

When all is done, is what we lose worth more than what we gain, factoring in all those intangibles that cannot be priced, like sunlight?

These towers fail on all counts and portend a terrible future for New York: oligarchic, dark, anti-urban, turned inward, with the wealthy getting around in armored SUVs at ground level, and flying around from private helipads the rest of the time, serviced by Amazon drones right to their private, terraced parks 40 stories up. Another injustice is that the architects and developers of these Lower East Side sites made a terrible mess that they inflict on us, and then they all make out like bandits! For the rest of us there will be less than nothing: blockage of views to the river, shadows, residential displacement and no direct sunlight at street level all day long, all year-round. That is already the case for many of the streets in Midtown already, so why keep repeating that mistake?

These glassy tower complexes, just like at Hudson Yards, like Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, Essex Crossing, Domino Sugar Factory, Sunnyside, East Harlem and Yorkville are the architecture of death — death of a city, death of what urban greatness we once had, death of a human-scale world. These towering edifices are cold as tombs, hateful to the street, without history, untouchable, without humanity, and way, way too tall.

There are two lawsuits trying to fight the Two Bridges towers. One is in the works by a coalition of Lower East Side and Chinatown residents. They charge that the city is violating its own laws in putting up these monsters. This group is ready to use whatever barricades they can find. They know how to organize, do rallies, read the political tea leaves and have no illusions. That is, even if we can get these towers to go through a public land-use review process (ULURP) there is no indication that Councilmember Margaret Chin would then actually use that opportunity to stop them. To help this coalition, go to their Web site here.

The area boxed in red shows the footprint of the megatower projects. In a perk for the community, the developers have pledged to provide some upgrades to a number of local parks.

The second lawsuit filed — under community pressure — was developed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in alliance with the City Council. Their suit claims that the head of City Planning (Big Real Estate insider Carl Weisbrod) violated the law and behaved arbitrarily and capriciously when he declared that the zoning changes these towers required were all just “minor modifications” [sic]. As such, the projects could go through the bureaucracy with his nod alone rather than through the normal (and deeply flawed) public review process that much smaller projects must undergo.

While both lawsuits have right on their side (see the City Council’s brief against the city here), getting justice in court in this kind of case is hard. Judges don’t want to intervene in issues involving regulatory agencies, and typically throw up their hands, claiming they can’t do anything because all discretion lies with the experts in the regulatory agency. On the bright side, the City Council’s legal brief is very good and lays out a good case that Weisbrod was on the wrong side of the law.

Fighting these towers also means fighting a vision of the city that we don’t want, and arguing for a human-scale alternative. It also means building electoral power and coalitions among those who are sick of the way real estate power rules everything in New York City. So don’t just shield your eyes in sorrow when you glance down to the Extell Tower From Hell that is complete. Go to www.humanscale.nyc and take the voter pledge not to support any candidates who take real estate money. That’s a first step that will connect you to one of the many resistance networks in the city.

Lynn Ellsworth
Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC

30 Responses to OPINION: Architecture of hell on the Lower East Side

  1. Thank you for this. I stare at that disgusting Extell beast everyday from my living room and it’s a stark reminder that big real estate rules in NYC. As the saying goes: Oil is to Texas as real estate is to NY.

    Thank you to the activists fighting these towers of injustice, bc if they go through (ie more apartments packed into that one block than ALL OF HUDSON YARDS – let that sink in) it will further normalize this type of outrageous overdevelopment. Chin is worthless and Brewer I

    s too little too late. Take the pledge AND VOTE THEM ALL OUT.

  2. resident/organizer

    We must hold Mayor de Blasio accountable for his pro-developer agenda that's killing our neighborhoods, robbing us of our livelihoods, our public natural resources, and our sanity. No towers, no compromise.

  3. Unlike Hudson Yards, Bloomberg did not have the chance to run a subway line out to these towers, so while we're trying to price people out of driving on our overcrowded streets, these towers would demand that rich residents drive past the projects just to get anywhere. That just intensifies a big problem while we're trying to solve it. Makes. No. Sense.

    The shadows that these towers would cast on the nearby public housing takes us back to the bad old Five Points Days. What good is affordable housing, if the people who live there have their health put in danger? Didn't we already win the fight to keep some sunlight on our sidewalks back in the 1970s? Why must we fight it all over again?

    Odd that our council member, Margaret Chin, isn't supporting such towers in Chinatown (where there's major public transportation, and it would be cheaper, quicker, and easier) and that she's not trying to rezone that neighborhood. Well, it's not odd; it's racism. She protects the neighborhood of her race, but sacrifices this neighborhood where a diversity of people live. And since Chin cannot run for re-election, she doesn't need our vote anymore, but only wants to repay REBNY for all the free ads and mailings they did for her in the last election. So wrong.

    People in this district deserve better. It's disgusting what their elected members are doing to them.

  4. We made an enormous mistake when we voted in De Blasio for his first term. The second term sealed the fate for the already ongoing destruction of this city. There's a lot of blame to go around. Living here 45 years I have never seen anything that resembles city planning. It's a free for all with an unregulated Gold Rush, city residents be damned. Big real estate runs City Hall with their lobbyists and the way they game the system. They have projected a soullessness onto NY. It will all fall apart soon as these inhuman structures attract fewer and fewer buyers. Thank goodness for these community activists like Human Scale Alliance and Lynn Ellsworth who continue to fight for our city.

  5. Never forget NYU.

  6. A great piece by Lynn Ellsworth.

    We need to be wary of politicians and wannabes claiming to be progressive and "grass roots" but who ultimately take money from Real Estate.

    Save our city!

  7. And all this development impact on the Brooklyn Bridge is horrible, too. The first tower on the lower east side has absolutely ruined the view plane of that great structure from all points in Brooklyn. Is no one thinking through this stuff? Thank god for Lynn Ellsworth but where are our politicians? Why can we not get this right? Why is there no value placed on the historic structures that define our city? Ruining the views of the Great Bridge? Huh? Is everything in NYC for sale? Have we no shame?

    • You ask, where are our politicians? They are collecting the money or waiting for favors. Or scared of them. You ask Why all this? For the money. Greed. They’d run over someone in a wheelchair in their way. AND THEY STE IN A SENSE DOING THAT TO EVERYONE. The sooner you and the rest of you learn this, the sooner you can equip yourselves to fight it. They won’t hear you? Block their other Bills and pet projects. Protest. Expose their corruption. Find in the law where they’ve broken it, then go after them with truly dedicated lawyers and advocates. And appeal, appeal, appeal, and publicize, publicize, publicize. Get a look into their books, and their lives, find something the DA will go after. Even if it’s not about this project or even housing. Then again, publicize, publicize, publicize. Act like the rabid Republicans do, Only here you’re doing it for a good cause. Don’t stop at any cost. On and on. Don’t give up or give in. Or they will steamroller over everything in sight.

  8. Matthew Borenstein

    Housing is a basic human right = low-rent housing – no more than 1/3 of income – must be guaranteed & provided by NY state law to ALL who need it.

    • This is nonsense. Housing is a consumer product, just like any other. Can't afford it to bad. Work harder or smarter.

      And if you want the price of housing to come down, let developers build enough the competition drives the price down (which if you look closely enough is happening.)

      NYC is one of the most desirable and expensive cities in the world. No one needs to be here, especially if they can't afford it. There a whole big wide open country (and, really, world) out there, that MUCH cheaper. If any one can't afford to live here, they should leave, and find somewhere they can afford. There are lots of cities and towns where someone can get a decent one bedroom apartment for $6-700. If anyone can't afford a $2000 1 bed in NYC, they should find these places.

      • And who will work in stores or wait tables or teach the kids or wash your windows? Morality aside, the city needs the people who can’t afford to live here. You think that people aren’t working hard enough??? The jobs don’t pay enough for people to support themselves. Not even if they work 60 hours a week.

        • Then if employers want to fill the jobs, they'll have to pay enough that people will want to take them.

          Have you not noticed that NYC has both the most heavily regulated, and otherwise government meddled with, housing market in the country, and also the most dysfunctional? That's NOT a coincidence. We've had multiple forms of rent regulation and government built housing for almost seventy years, and it solved NOTHING. Do YOU want to live in a NYCHA project? That's what government housing is.

          The government needs to get OUT of the real estate market, and let it reach proper equilibrium. Until that happens, housing in NYC is going to continue to be a mess.

          • Blah. Blah. Blah. Hey "Let them Eat Cake"! Are you a real estate broker, landlord or a hedge funder? What nonsense! Yes, thousands of staggeringly priced condos where a starter apartment is around $5 mil is really going to level the real estate market. You are talking to a New York audience here and contrary to what you might think, we are not so easily fooled. Rent regulation and public housing has done nothing? Tell that to the thousands of people who have a roof over their head. But don't forget to throw a buck or two to the ones who now live on the street pushed out by predatory landlords and utopian developers you seem to dig. There is no free market operating here where there could be housing for many different income groups. There's one market here-the one that controls city hall and builds only for enormous profit. and enormous wealthy people to park their cash. As for people being shipped off to some "other" place how lovely of you. Just don't expect to have anyone to fix your car, work in your restaurants, teach your kids in school, clean your apartment, make your coffee, work in your food markets, shine your shoes-shall I go on?

          • "let it reach proper equilibrium" — it can't happen here, and that's the major flaw in your argument. Makes you more wrong than other folks…. or you know it and are just lying to get a rise out of people cuz you're bored and lonely.

          • It can very well happen here. It happens everywhere else in the country. It's the government regulation and other interference in the market that directly causes the housing shortage. Not just rent regulation (but definitely including it.) but landmarking, overly restrictive zoning, city construction regulation, etc., etc.. In protecting all the sacred cows of entrenched interests, the NYC/S government has created a huge mess, greatly retarded housing creation.

          • No, it can't. NYC is NOT "everywhere else" — Manhattan is an island. (and honestly, you must admit that "It" does NOT happen everywhere else. Not factual, but just your hyperbole.) A century ago we just filled in between the piers to make more island or dug out the tub for WTCs and created more island that way. But now, Resiliency needs will prevent a bigger island. And that's the only way you could make room for that many more residents. Face it, nobody wants to live in your world. It's be disgusting. Thank god most NYers are smarter than that.

      • "let developers build enough the competition drives the price down" — that can't happen on such a small island in such demand. How many units would need to be built until everyone who wants to live in Manhattan lives in Manhattan? Can't be done!

        It's not that your ideas are stupid, but that they are just not possible given our limited real estate. In a perfect world with acres to build on, you might have a point. But we don't have that here, so you're just incredibly wrong. Even your final paragraph here totally contradicts your point. We "are most desirable" and "there are lots of cities", but here ain't there. ugh!

        • Not everyone has to live in Manhattan. There's a lot of city outside of Manhattan, a lot of which is underbuilt. There are parts of Manhattan that are underbuilt, because the local NIMBYs have been successful in getting the politicritters to put in roadblocks to development.

          And it make come as as shock, but it's not tragic if not everyone who wants to live in NYC gets to, or if some people who live here get priced out and have to leave.

  9. I really hate what NYC is becoming. I hate the cold glass and steel architecture and the huge towers climbing into the sky. There is very little character left in NYC architecture. The low and now middle income housing shortage will continue to worsen. When you get 60,000 applications applying for 300 housing units, that’s a real problem.

  10. This was all foreshadowed in the 1973 dystopian film “Soylent Green” concerning a New York City in the future. It unfortunately seems as if we are on our way and it cannot be stopped.

  11. Low income residents are not entitled to a lifetime of economic accommodation from government, via the U.S. tax payers.

    • Correct, but if we as a government provided this one economic accommodation then as a country we'd have less homelessness, less crime, less drug addiction, less crowded emergency rooms, less mental illness, less hunger… and the list goes on. The savings in other government services would be off the charts.

  12. The print version of this merely says: "To help this coalition, go to their Web site." WIthout giving either the URL or the name of the group. It is Lower East Side Organized Neighbors.

  13. All who are intersted and would want to speak their opinions opinions on this matter should seriously plan on attending a Town Hall on skyscrapers in the Two Bridges area to be held TODAY, Wednesday March 27th, 6:30 to 8:30 PM at PS 184 (SHUAHG WEN) at 327 Cherry Street NY 10002, second floor For more info see the article on today's Patch Newspapr about the town hall at https://patch.com/new-york/east-village/calendar/…. Space is limited, so please RSVP to Julian Morales at GOLES: Julian@goles.org or phone him at 646-930-1518.

  14. Calls and emails reaching out to Mayors Office and so-called constituent affairs division are all ignored. Deblasio's staff seem very selective if they do answer the phone or respond to emails. When will Emma Wolf be accountable and be fired since she is the alleged chief of staff to the Mayor. Staff are such amateurs they don't even get how to write a constituent letter. All of the staff are very young, inexperienced, no clue to public policy issues and high turnover.

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