The city’s legal department on Wednesday filed its second appeal in court against two lawsuits that led to an earlier injunction that halted the project that would result in the construction of four new skyscrapers on the Lower East Side.
A rendering of the potential development in Two Bridges provided by the developers. The Extell Tower is located furthest to the left and is about to be completed. The other four towers have yet to be approved and are the subject of battle.
The city’s legal department and the developers of the controversial two-bridge proposal appeared before a jury in the appeals court on Wednesday, arguing their second appeal against two lawsuits that resulted in an earlier injunction that prevented the project from moving forward.
The focus of the dispute, which is waged between members of the Lower East Side community against the de Blasio government and the developers who want to build four skyscrapers there, depends on the peculiarities of a special designation that the city gave the neighborhood in 1972, when it was classified as a Large-Scale Residential Development (LSRD) area, where the city offers flexibility over normal land use regulations to allow the most space-saving use of large residential buildings that span multiple lots.
One of the lawsuits against the Two Bridges proposal – filed by Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side (TUFF-LES), CAAAV: Organization of Asian Communities, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), the Land’s End Tenant Association, and the LaGuardia Houses Tenant Association – argues that, according to court records, city zoning regulations do not allow any change within an LSRD area without “formal approval from the Town Planning Commission (CPC) based on specific findings supported by evidence”. This did not come about in the de Blasio government’s earlier approval of Two Bridges, and a judge took the plaintiffs’ side last year ruling that the city must ensure that the new development met a set of conditions – or “determinations” – It does not drastically change the character or population density of the neighborhood, and it does not adversely affect access to light, air or privacy.
The controversial project would include a 1,008 foot rental tower at 247 Cherry Street, a 798 foot twin tower project at 260 South Street, and a 730 foot building at 259 Clinton Street. The four towers would add 11,000 square feet of retail space and over 2,700 new housing units, 25 percent of which would be affordable, with 200 of those 690 affordable units being reserved for senior citizens. The development project would also include $ 40 million in upgrades to the nearby East Broadway subway station, $ 12.5 million in repairs to the nearby NYCHA complex, and $ 15 million in upgrades to three public parks in the neighborhood.
The city argues that the CPC is under no obligation to make determinations under the LSRD designation, as confirmed by the municipality’s lawsuit. “[The plaintiffs] claim that a special permit issued in 1972 has an ongoing requirement for the commission to determine. This argument does not find a home in the text of the special permit itself, in the text of the zoning order or in the history of the LSRD, ”Jamison Davies, senior appellate attorney in the city’s legal department, told the jury on Wednesday.
Davies cited the city’s legal victory in a separate lawsuit against the Two Bridges project last year, in which an appeals court sided with the de Blasio government. In this lawsuit, filed by City Council and Manhattan City President Gale Brewer, it was argued that the size of the proposed project required a special permit that would support the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the public review Land use of the city, would trigger process. In this case, a judge issued an injunction that halted development in 2019. However, that decision was overturned by the appeals court in August last year.
In a City Limits statement, the developers at Two Bridges – JDS Development Group, Starrett Corporation, L + M Development Partners, and CIM Group – also pointed out this earlier judicial reversal to prove their projects complied with existing zoning regulations.
“In August the Appeals Division made it clear that these projects were legitimately approved and in line with the zoning that has been in place for over 30 years, and we are confident that the court will reconfirm this after today’s hearing,” the statement said. Developers argue that discontinuing the project would deprive the community of private investment in affordable housing and infrastructure, which the financially troubled city needs, especially during a global pandemic. “If the lower court’s decision to annul these projects is upheld, all of these investments and the jobs that come with them will not be realized,” the statement said.
Paula Segal, a senior attorney for Takeroot Justice who represents the plaintiffs in Wednesday’s case, told City Limits that her legal arguments differed from those in the city council’s and Brewer’s lawsuit. Segal’s customers are requesting the CPC to approve and issue a findings report prior to approving such a large-scale project that they claim is required under the 1972 site LSRD designation.
Plaintiffs initially won an injunction against the project in the Supreme Court in 2019, which was upheld by the court when the city appealed last February. If the appeals court reconfirms the existing order, the city’s legal department and developers’ attorneys could have another option to appeal to the State Court of Appeals, the highest court. If the court decides to overturn the current injunction, the community groups it represents would also apply to the appellate court for a reversal.
Wednesday’s trial is also considering another lawsuit aimed at halting developments. It was filed by the Lower East Side Organized Neighbors (LESON) community group, which advanced similar arguments to Segal’s lawsuit and also received an injunction last year. The jury can make a decision in one or both cases in the future.
Two Bridges residents involved in the lawsuits spoke at a press conference Wednesday night and said they were concerned about the size of the project and the impact it will have on long-term residents.
“This was an undesirable area 20, 30 years ago, and suddenly we are prime real estate,” said Elaine La Penna, who lives in the building next to One Manhattan Square, a luxury condominium sold in 2019 by Extell. The developers built affordable housing as part of the project in order to benefit from a 20-year tax break through the state’s 421-a program. However, residents expressed concerns about the differences between affordable housing units and luxury condominiums. While One Manhattan Square has its own security, the doors of the La Penna building are broken, she says.
“The inequality is just disgusting. I hate to see it stay that way across the neighborhood. I think there have to be better zoning laws, ”she said.
Several court rulings in recent months have put the city’s land use powers to the test. In November, a judge granted a restraint against private development plans for two 39-story apartment buildings that would bring 1,578 units to Crown Heights that would tower over the nearby Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. In 2019, a judge overturned the city’s Inwood rededication plan for 2018, but the city later prevailed against that decision in the appeals court and allowed the rededication plan to evolve.
The city’s proposal to reschedule 80 Gowanus blocks in Brooklyn is also facing a lawsuit from parishioners who say it should be postponed until after the pandemic if personal public gatherings can resume.