Blink and you might miss the rise of another dozen luxury skyscrapers in New York. The last few years have seen the city’s skyline change at rapid pace as developers reconfigure the Tetris blocks of Manhattan’s grid system into fancy real estate projects like Hudson Yards. Completing this puzzle, and the bureaucratic hoops that come with it, often results in a squeeze on the middle class and low-income people already living in the area. Having witnessed the displacement that often accompanies gentrification, residents of the Two Bridges neighborhood in Manhattan’s Lower East Side are saying enough is enough — and partnering with their local arts community to defend their homes.
A coalition of grassroots organizations across the city have rallied to prevent the impending construction of high-rise towers in the Two Bridges neighborhood, one of which protested at the steps of Manhattan Supreme Court ahead of yesterday’s hearing about the proposed skyscrapers, which are funded in part by L+M Development Partners, CIM Group, and JDS Development Group. Later that evening, the state judge extended a temporary halt on the controversial project with a promise to deliver a final verdict in August.
“These are huge towers,” Judge Arthur Engoron said. “I’ve lived in the city my whole life. You can’t just do this because the zoning allows it. I just can’t believe this is the case.”
Following the decision, a spokesman for the developers commented: “The Judge’s decision to extend the TRO [temporary restraining order] for two months does not impact the projects because construction was not planned to start imminently.”
The city’s Law Department also responded, saying that it was disappointed with the ruling. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s preliminary findings. The approvals made by the city were appropriate and we will continue to defend against the claims challenging these important projects.”
Locals have fought against the glossy development project from the very beginning. An environmental impact hearing with the City Planning Commission last October overflowed capacity with over 600 people in attendance. Protesters held up signs throughout the discussion asking their representatives to vote down the proposal; politicians like State Senator Brian Kavanagh warned that skyscrapers on this scale should warrant a larger public review period.
“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.”
By December, Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer joined City Council in suing the Department of City Planning in an effort to stymie the skyscrapers. The key issue before the court was a 1972 rule that defines large-scale residential developments as “minor” modifications, which are not required to pass through the full Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) that would solicit more community involvement and scrutiny towards the developments. The Supreme Court would not grant the lawsuit its motion for a temporary restraining order against the developments, but more lawsuits were filed on March 23 against the project by activist groups including Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), which have made their way through the courts.
Organizations that oppose the luxury skyscrapers say it would threaten nearby senior housing, put a strain on the local environment, and cripple an already limited public transportation system in the area, which only has one subway stop. Activists also claim 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. Developers have responded, saying that they plan to expend significant effort in revitalizing the neighborhood with improved green spaces, affordable housing, and a community center for some residents.
Although there is evidence that galleries and artists can represent the first wave of gentrification, arts organizations in the Two Bridges community are mounted a virulent defense against the development project. One group at the forefront of this movement is Art Against Displacement (AAD) — a coalition of dealers, artists, and art professions that live and work in the area. Active members include Margaret Lee, an artist who co-founded AAD in 2017 and also operated the gallery 47 Canal; Heather Hubbs, executive director of the New Art Dealers Alliance; and Vanessa Thrill, an artist who works with many of the Lower East Side and Chinatown galleries.
According to its website, AAD hopes to “amplify the demands of those whose lives and livelihoods are placed at risk by predatory development and resettlement” by working with other grassroots organizations like CSWA. “The group affirms that gentrification is not an inevitable effect of urban development, and refuses to let the work of cultural producers be instrumentalized towards the displacement of long-term residents and businesses.”