Two Bridges, Three Luxury Condos: How One Community's Fight Against Gentrification Reveals the Processes that Power It

As glassy towers continue to go up around New York City, residents of the Lower East Side are locked in an epic battle with developers to stop three new (towering) towers along the waterfront, arguing that they would permanently alter the character of the neighborhood—not to mention the skyline—and lead to a spike in indirect displacement. The fight itself is critical for a neighborhood that’s being pummelled by gentrification. But it also reveals a larger pattern beneath displacement—the technical loopholes that power that pummelling and allow giant developments to encroach against neighborhood protest. The secret sauce for developers is actually an alphabet soup, a stew of jargon and acronyms that can spell the difference between gentrification and affordable housing.

When it comes to the Lower East Side development fight, residents’ worries are well-placed: of the three towers, one is over 1000 feet high and the others are over 700.

If they’re built, they would add 2.5 million square feet of development and 3000 new apartment units to the area—only 700 of which would be affordable. The size of the three separate developments puts them in a category known as a Large Scale Residential Development, or LSRD. This first alphabet soup mouthful is important, so pay attention. The City Planning Commission can only greenlight a modification to an LSRD if they find that the proposed changes lead to a better built environment—from relationships among buildings to open space. But if the Commission finds that the proposed development modifications are ‘minor’ rather than ‘major’, they can approve them without granting a special permit. This means the decision would be entirely in the hands of the Commission, and—wait for the second mouthful of alphabet soup—no Uniform Land Use Review Project, or ULURP. No ULURP, in turn, means that the public can’t comment on the proposed developments, the Borough President can’t review them, and the City Council gets no say.

This wholesale waiving of public process is even more significant given that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (or DEIS) for the Two Bridges development has already found that the developments would adversely affect congestion, transit, childcare facilities, schools and open space. And certainly the presence of massive luxury towers in an already cramped and gentrifying neighborhood seems to constitute a ‘major’ impact. Nevertheless, in 2016, then-director of the Department of City Planning Carl Weisbrod affirmed that the changes posed by the buildings are minor and allowed developers to bypass both the public and the City Council.

The results of this decision will likely be devastating for low- and middle-income families in the neighborhood, which is reason enough to oppose the process. But it also highlights the process by which developers—and their compatriots in government bureaucracy—bypass democracy to push through the large-scale luxury developments that are changing the skyline in Two Bridges, but also the fabric of the entire city. Looked at another way, it’s a primer on how to learn the jargon and resist these projects—something organizers in the LES have been doing for years.

For example: In 1986, faced with a similar fight against luxury development, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association—a workers’ center and organizing hub made of members from diverse trades—sued the city, arguing that displacement should be included in the impacts weighed by any Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The workers argued that people are part of the environment, and thus displacement is an environmental impact. They prevailed in court, and the landmark decision stopped the development at issue and required displacement to be considered in any future impact assessment. More recently, neighborhood groups have been working on their own comprehensive rezoning plan that would protect the neighborhood’s people, culture and character and make it harder for large-scale luxury developments to get a toehold in the area. The current proposal demands everything from more open space to special permits for big-box stores and a commitment to permanent affordable housing, plus stronger protections for existing tenants and height limits on surrounding buildings. So far, the Department of City Planning has refused their proposal. But the idea—to change neighborhood planning from a narrow, bureaucratic yes-and to developers to a people-powered process with broad protections for the community—is exactly the kind of thing that would stop luxury developments in Two Bridges.

Currently, the City Planning Commission is poised to approve the skyscrapers in spite of residents’ protests. But the future of neighborhoods in New York at least partly hinges on community advocates understanding the jargon that leads to displacement, and fighting back with some words of their own.

Ash Sanders