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Another Wave of Gentrification Hits the Lower East Side

Hundreds of LES residents voiced their opposition to the proposed luxury high-rises in the area mainly populated by low-income people of color.

Inside the NYC Planning Commission hearing on Two Bridges (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The character of the Lower East Side (LES) is changing must faster than its longtime residents would like. Neighborhoods like Chinatown and the East Village, which once housed immigrant communities and avant-garde artists, have gradually ceded territory to small galleries and luxury apartment buildings. This wave of gentrification now faces one of the district’s most isolated neighborhoods, which currently contains just one subway station and one grocery store.

The proposed high-rise towers (on the Two Bridges waterfront between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges) would be glossy outliers in a neighborhood of brick government housing projects catering to a working-class immigrant population. The new development would contain 3,000 new apartments, with only about 25% of them being reserved for low and middle-income tenants. Proponents of the plan claim that their trio of new skyscrapers will revitalize the neighborhood with improved greens spaces, affordable housing, and a community center for some residents. Opponents say that construction will pierce through their poor neighborhood where over 80% of the population is comprised of people of color, many of whom are also elderly, live below the poverty line, and/or have disabilities.

The Two Bridges project is funded in part by L+M Development Partners and the CIM Group. For some detractors of the project, the CIM Group’s business relationship with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is enough to cancel the project. The private equity firm based in Los Angeles has done at least seven real estate deals in the past that have benefited Trump and the people around him, including Kushner. Back in December 2016, the group helped Kushner Companies buy 85 Jay Street, a parking lot in Brooklyn, for $345 million.

When Hyperallergic asked one longtime resident why she disliked the Two Bridges development plan, she responded, “If I wanted to live in a glass tower, then I would have moved to midtown.”

The overflow room at overcapacity

The New York City Planning Commission’s hearing about the project’s environmental impact statement was filled to capacity by angry community members. Protesters held signs throughout the hearing that read “No towers! No compromises.” Even the overflow room was having capacity issues, and many attendees being asked to wait in the foyer or come back at a later time. By Hyperallergic’s estimate, over 600 people came to the hearing, about half of whom were turned away. One employee at the venue said that this immense volume of people at a Planning Commission hearing was highly unusual. According to the Commission’s chairperson, Marisa Lago, over 100 people had signed up to speak about the Two Bridges project proposal.

“I am here today as part of the fight to save our neighborhood,” Council Member Margaret Chin said at the start of the hearing. “For decades [Two Bridges] has been a low to mid-rise haven for immigrants of different cultures, religions, and special backgrounds. If approved, this application would destroy this neighborhood without any public review.”

New York State Senator Brian Kavanagh’s statement largely agreed with Chin’s. He similarly noted that a project of this scale should require a greater public review period while swatting away the idea that the Two Bridges neighborhood resisted reasonable avenues of development.

Susan Stetzer testified before the Commission as the district manager of Community Board 3, which serves the Two Bridges community. She observed that the LES has the second-highest income inequality gap in Manhattan. (The Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development also rates the neighborhood as having the second-highest threat to affordable housing in Manhattan.) She noted that such inequality would make even the “affordable” units at Two Bridges likely unaffordable for low-income residents in the community.

Before the hearing, those waiting in the overflow room were anxious to see the political drama play out firsthand. Kirsten Theodos was worried about the effect more skyscrapers would have on the Lower East Side, having already seen their effect on her own community surrounding the East Village. A third-generation immigrant who advocates for small business owners and artists as the spokesperson of TakeBackNYC, she was upset about the proposed Two Bridges project. According to her, construction in the neighborhood would irrevocably change the character of an area predominantly catering to working-class immigrants. Particularly offensive to her was how the luxury skyscrapers would obstruct the projects’ views of the East River, barring low-income residents from this privilege in favor of high-paying investors. Such economic slights against the Two Bridges community, Theodos said, is tantamount to racism.

One significant question that the Planning Commission tried to address was how the Two Bridges project could qualify as a small development project when the scope of its construction was so big. Representatives from the buildings’ three architecture firms argued that their proposal followed the precedent of previous luxury developments that had won municipal improvement. Although they did not directly address the cultural or socioeconomic impacts of their project, the architects announced their plans to help mitigate strain on public services during construction with multi-million dollar cooperation deals with the Mass Transit Authority (MTA) and the Parks Department to increase subway station capacity and park maintenance, respectively. These projects, they said, would be financed and built directly by the developers.

Protesters make their opinions seen through the hearing’s video feed during a presentation

Longtime residents who came to testify against the Two Bridges project were unconvinced by the architects’ arguments. They worried that construction would negatively affect quality of life, transportation, and stability in the neighborhood for years to come. They also claimed that data in the Environmental Impact Statement was inaccurate and flawed because it pulled from old records and failed to account for certain socioeconomic factors. The NYC Planning Commissioners seemed aware of the report’s shortcomings, noting that its methodology often skews in favor of projects over community concerns.

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