Manhattan Skyscraper Project Spurs Court Fight

MANHATTAN (CN) – Opponents claim New York City officials’ plans for three skyscrapers in a historic low-income area of Manhattan were rushed to approval without going through proper regulatory channels or consulting residents of the neighborhood.

Planned construction in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Manhattan’s Lower East Side had been approved earlier this month but was pushed through without the proper review, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in New York County Supreme Court.

On Dec. 5, the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) and the City Planning Commission (CPC) issued building permits for three skyscrapers, which would include roughly 2.5 million square feet of new space and 2,700 dwelling units on a city block that currently has less than 1,400 dwelling units. About 700 of those units would be affordable housing, city officials have said. 

However, despite the breadth of the planned skyscrapers, opponents claim approval for the three skyscrapers was rushed through as a mere “minor modification,” not a major construction, and without approval by the New York City Council.

Two days after the permits were issued, the New York City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to halt development, claiming it would “forever alter the Two Bridges neighborhood and the New York City skyline” and decimate senior living and low-income residences in the immediate area.

“Despite the obvious magnitude of the proposed modifications and the clear requirements under the City Charter for these projects to be submitted and reviewed as requests for new permits, the DCP and CPC, controlled by mayoral appointees,attempt to wholly circumvent the appropriate process, to the detriment of the communities they are tasked with serving,” the petition states. 

Brewer said Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city officials forced their hand. 

“I don’t like suing the mayor or his agencies, but if that’s what it takes to get the residents of Two Bridges the full review and real negotiation they’re entitled to under the law, then I’m all in,” Brewer said in a statement last week. 

In a stipulation released shortly after the petition was filed, the parties agreed to halt construction until a hearing in February. 

However, city officials say this is just a formality and that planned development is still on. 

A spokesman for the city’s law department said the ruling “enables the developers to move forward with obtaining the preliminary approvals that are necessary before development of the sites.” 

In a statement on Twitter on Sunday, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson hailed that decision as a temporary success. 

“We are happy our efforts in court were successful in ensuring development will not proceed until the court has an opportunity to hear our case on the merits,”Johnson wrote in the tweet. “DCP agreed not to issue approval letters to [the Department of Buildings] for the applications, pausing the process until we return to court.”

Johnson had previously called DCP’s approval of the skyscrapers “an embarrassment” and wrote on Twitter that “we aren’t taking it laying down.”

The Two Bridges neighborhood, a roughly nine-block area that has been listed in the National Register of Historical Places, has been filled with lower and middle-income tenement buildings.

The neighborhood, abutted by the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, was once described by Guns N’Roses guitarist Richard Fortus as “the only neighborhood left in Manhattan that doesn’t have a Starbucks.”

Zoning restrictions in the area limit buildings to a maximum height of 240 feet, but under the planned construction the skyscrapers would reach between 730 and 1,000 feet, according to the petition.

“The proposed buildings are massive, particularly when the context of the neighborhood is considered,” the petition states, noting the highest building would tower at more than 80 stories high. 

According to the petition, approval of the skyscrapers also should have gone through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which requires input from community and borough boards and final approval by the City Council.

The petition notes several comparable developments in Harlemand Far Rockaway that had gone through the ULURP process but says that for some reason, the Two Bridges plans were given special treatment. 

A spokesman for the city’s law department said subjecting the developments to the ULURP process would have “gone beyond DCP’s authority.”

The project garnered opposition in 2016 from several city officials who claim the de Blasio administration tried steamrolling it through without proper community input. However, DCP officials denied the project counted as a major modification to the area. 

An August 2016 letter from then-DCP Director Carl Weisbrod said an environmental impact statement would be drafted about the project and that plans would be reviewed in “accordance with urban design principles that result in … an improved streetscape and pedestrian condition.”

However,the fact that an environmental study was needed at all proves the development is a major modification and not a minor one, according to Friday’s petition. In addition, DCP released its 700-page environmental study the day after Thanksgiving and less than two weeks before the scheduled vote, the petition notes. 

“Though environmental review was conducted for the projects, it is not a substitute for the oversight and opportunity for notice and comment that ULURP provides,” the petition states. “A handful of public hearings does not—and cannot—stand in for the oversight and comment that ULURP provides, which provides space for the review and ultimate action from an institution that represents all New Yorkers: the City Council.”

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