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Two Bridges towers turnaround: Court rules against pols’ lawsuit, but locals fight on

BY THE VILLAGE SUN | Right now — amid the economy-crushing pandemic and with the wealthy hiding out in the Hamptons — does not exactly seem like the best time to build more megatowers on the Lower East Side.

And the example of One Manhattan Square is not very encouraging, either. The gargantuan 72-story luxury residential skyscraper was completed last year. Hard by the Manhattan Bridge, with its ear-splitting racket of thundering subway trains, the massive monolith still sports many empty apartments.

In hopes of filling those vacancies, the owner has axed building maintenance fees and is offering rent-to-buy and other deals.

Nevertheless, pro-real estate forces are wildly cheering the recent court decision by the Appellate Division that found that three high-rise developments — sporting a total of four towers — planned in the Two Bridges area can move forward without going through a lengthy ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure).

The developers of the projects include JDS Development Group, CIM Group, L+M Development Partners and Starrett Corporation.

Initially, at the lower court level, a State Supreme Court justice had found for the plaintiffs, Councilmember Margaret Chin, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Following the Appellate Division’s verdict, the three officials issued a joint statement, noting they are “evaluating options” on how to proceed.

“We, the City Council and the Manhattan borough president, sued the administration here,” they stated, “because we believed that the community needed a seat at the table for a proposal which would add close to 3,000 units of majority luxury housing within a three-block radius in a historically affordable and diverse waterfront neighborhood, and would pierce through a low-income senior building. We’re disappointed at today’s decision to overturn the lower court’s ruling in our favor and are evaluating our options.”

There is now a short period of time for the three pols to decide whether to appeal. Their lawyers are convening to plan their next steps.

Because the Appellate Division ruled unanimously, 4 to 0, the plaintiffs don’t have the right to an automatic appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Instead, they would have to request permission to appeal — similar to, at the federal level, a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, which Sheldon Silver recently filed to try to stave off his imprisonment.

Meanwhile, pro-development cheerleaders hailed the recent Lower East Side ruling. Steve Cuozzo, writing in the New York Post, declared that the path is now clear for the Two Bridges towers — ranging from 63 to 80 stories — to start being built.

A design rendering of the four planned towers at Two Bridges. The tower at left, by Extell, closest to the Manhattan Bridge, has already been constructed.

“A bombshell court ruling means that opponents of plans for a massive Lower East Side development project have lost their battle to chop the planned towers down to size,” he wrote in the lede of his column, which was headlined, “It’s onward and upward on LES.”

However, two community lawsuits against the so-called Large-Scale Residential Development plan (which encompasses all three of the Two Bridges projects) are, in fact, still active. The plaintiffs in both cases won at the lower court level but the city has appealed both decisions.

One of those suits, filed by LESON (Lower East Side Organized Neighbors), won an injunction against the Two Bridges L.S.R.D. in the lower court. So until the Appellate Division rules on that case, the injunction will remain in place. A decision is expected by early October, according to LESON.

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side — which LESON is a part of — issued a statement downplaying the ruling on the Chin/Brewer/Johnson lawsuit; urging passage of the Chinatown Working Group rezoning to guard the area from overdevelopment; and reiterating its endorsement of Council candidate Chris Marte.

“Margaret Chin’s case would allow the towers to go through the ULURP process, which would have given the City Council voting power on the towers,” the Coalition’s statement said. “She had indicated she would use the ULURP process to bargain for concessions, not to stop the towers from tearing through our community.

“Chin’s case has little support from the community because it will only lead to the approval of the towers. Therefore, contrary to what the City wants people to believe, her loss does not affect the outcome.

“By contrast, the LESON and the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side’s lawsuit points out the City violated its own zoning law in approving these towers and they should not be built,” the statement continued. “Unlike Chin’s case, our lawsuit garnered thousands of signatures from the community and won in the lower court, resulting in an injunction against the towers.

“As we recover from the pandemic and prepare for the next step against the Two Bridges luxury towers, we need to demand that the City stop its displacement agenda and pass the full CWG plan that would stop luxury high-rises, discourage privatization of public land and facilitate truly affordable housing in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

“To do that, we need a councilmember who stands with the community instead of following Chin and de Blasio. The Coalition has endorsed Christopher Marte, who almost beat Chin in the last race, for the 2021 City Council election. Marte has been part of our fight against the Two Bridges luxury towers and vowed to pass the full CWG plan to protect our neighborhood for generations to come.”

In a statement to The Village Sun, Marte said, “From the very beginning, we knew that the councilmember’s lawsuit was weak. It didn’t make sense for the councilmember to be suing at the last minute for a land-use issue that she had power over for almost a decade. Despite the ruling against that case, we still have hope to stop these developments. The LESON lawsuit, which won’t be decided until October, is part of a larger strategy that goes beyond the courts. We’ve been organizing our neighbors through petitions and tabling for years, and are still advocating for the full Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan to protect the waterfront, and the rest of the Lower East Side and Chinatown.”

The other community lawsuit against the Two Bridges projects was filed by Tenants United Fighting for Lower East Side (TUFF-LES). Like the LESON suit, it argues that the L.S.R.D. did not go through the proper environmental reviews and violates zoning.

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