zone defense

Two Bridges Falling Down as Judge Knocks LES Towers Plan

The site of the Two Bridges development on the East River in lower Manhattan, as seen on July 16, 2019.
The site of the Two Bridges development on the East River in lower Manhattan, as seen on July 16, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A court ruling halted plans for three waterfront towers on the Lower East Side — and will force the megadevelopment known as Two Bridges to go through a lengthy public review.

In a slap to the Department of City Planning and the project’s developers, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron nullified a prior approval of plans for buildings ranging from 70 to 100 stories. He said no permits should be issued and no construction should begin before the development goes through a months-long zoning review.

Without that public scrutiny, known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), “a community will be drastically altered without having had its proper say,” Engoron wrote in the stinging July 31 decision, which was made public Thursday evening.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a leader of the Two Bridges legal challenge. “It was a big project and if you thought of messing with it without having community input — it’s not going to hold water.”

In all, the three residential towers planned by CIM Group, L+M Development Partners, Starrett Development and JDS Development Group would have held 2,775 apartments. About 25% of those rental units were to be classified as affordable housing, under the developers’ plans.

The City Planning Commission had previously voted to modify an existing permit for the development sites, clustered between Catherine and Montgomery streets, adjacent to the East River.

The city had contended underlying land use rules allowed them to modify the permit without going through ULURP — a process that requires input on the proposal from the local community board, borough president, City Planning Commission, City Council and mayor.

‘The Proliferation of Skyscrapers’

James Yolles, a spokesperson for the developers, said they plan to appeal the ruling.

“These projects were lawfully approved and met all legal requirements. They were proposed after years of community consultation, public review and environmental analysis, and in compliance with zoning that’s been in place for more than 30 years,” he said in a statement.

Lower East Side residents have been fighting the development for years, saying it would overwhelm an area of mostly low-slung apartment buildings and public housing complexes.

Engoron clearly sided with that view in his decision, which begins with a sizeable quote from the book “Greater Gotham” by Mike Wallace, which described New Yorkers at the turn of the 20th Century who “found the proliferation of skyscrapers appalling.”

“They wanted not a scattershot, profit-driven chaotic, and ugly city but one that was orderly, civic-minded, planned, and beautiful,” the quotation in the preamble read.

Fight Is Not Over

The Department of City Planning declined to comment on the case, referring questions to the city’s Law Department.

Nick Paolucci, a Law Department spokesperson, said the city is “disappointed by the court’s ruling impacting a project expected to add hundreds of affordable housing units and improve transit infrastructure for the community.”

“We are considering the city’s legal options,” he added.

Two other lawsuits challenging the Two Bridges developments are still pending — including one filed on behalf of Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side (TUFF-LES), Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities and others.

Melanie Wang of CAAAV said Engoron’s decision is a move in the right direction, noting it gives more time to those working on outlawing extremely tall towers on the Lower East Side waterfront.

As previously reported by THE CITY, locals are hurrying to put together a formal rezoning proposal by the end of the year to limit building heights to 35 stories.

“Rezoning is the bigger fish,” Wang said. “We want to really change the rules about what can be built.”

CORRECTION (Aug. 2, 2019, 12:50 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the agency that had “voted to modify an existing permit.” It was the City Planning Commission, not the Department of City Planning.

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