The area known as Two Bridges, below the Lower East Side, melting into Chinatown and hemmed in by the waterfront, has long been defined by its mix of mid-rise low-income public housing and affordable housing buildings. Now, within a matter of years it will suddenly have at least two towering skyscrapers in its midst.
Yesterday it was revealed that a new 77-story tower will be joining Extell’s massive 80-story behemoth on the Two Bridges waterfront. But this time, instead of a private company, the partners behind the project are two non-profit affordable housing developers with roots in the neighborhood, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and Settlement Fund. Their decision to sell the air rights to a slice of land abutting two affordable housing buildings highlights the complicated tightrope of combining a mission to serve the public and a sky-high rental market–some say leading to a conflict of interest.
The same non-profits involved in this plan also own the two buildings that will be overshadowed by the new tower: 80 Rutgers, a senior affordable housing building, and 82 Rutgers, a mixed-income affordable housing building. Of course, many nearby residents, already dealing with Extell construction that has destabilized their building and caused many headaches, feel blindsided by the news.
Tension ran high at a meeting last night, apparently the first direct contact the residents had had with the building’s owners in a long while. Victor Papa, president of TBNC and Alexa Sewell, president of Settlement Fund, presented their plan to sell 500,000 square feet of air rights (estimated at $51 million) on a piece of land with an empty retail space to JDS Development (also building a massive skyscraper at 57th Street, to rival Extell’s billionaire tower up there) and SHoP Architects. TBNC and Settlement Fund are 50/50 partners in the sale and it will eventually be solely owned by JDS and SHoP.
Sewell and Papa said this was a necessary step to infuse more money into their organizations, allowing them to continue to provide affordable housing and programming in the neighborhood. “Absolutely, Settlement Fund and Two Bridges Neighborhood Council are going to make money on this sale, and some of the beneficiaries of that will be buildings we own, programs we fund, and future developments that we are seeking to engage in,” said Sewell.
She pointed out that the new building, which does not fall under the mayor’s new mandatory inclusionary housing plan because the area hasn’t been rezoned, will set aside 25 percent affordable housing units (150) for families at 60-90 percent of area media income and include more community and outdoor spaces for the entire group of buildings to enjoy. They also promised to upgrade 80 and 82 Rutgers in the process.
“I truly believe that the quality of life in this building is going to be improved by that building going up. Because we’re going to have beautifully landscaped areas to sit and walk and play with your kids,” she said, also mentioning new retail opportunities and a new promenade. “Without this sale, and without that tower going up, none of that would happen.”
But many residents at 82 Rutgers were not having it last night (a large group of mainly Chinese seniors at 80 Rutgers also attended a separate presentation with a Chinese translator, but were much more subdued), asking, “what’s in it for us?” Conversation grew heated as residents tried to glean answers and transparency from Papa and Sewell on a range of issues and voiced their frustration with changes to the neighborhood out of their control. “What makes you different than Extell?” asked one person in the audience. “Because you are basically doing and saying the same things they said. You’re changing the neighborhood.” Sewell said they were different because the apartments will be rentals, not condos (meaning jet-setters wouldn’t buy them up without actually living in the area) and because of their responsiveness to the community and mission to provide permanent affordable housing.
But James Rodriguez, a community organizer at Good Old Lower East Side, said after the meeting that rentals aren’t necessarily a good thing in the area if most of them are in the $4,000 range. “We’ve seen so much of the gentrification of this neighborhood coming through the market rate rental market, so it’s really not that different,” he said.
“I think it’s kind of disingenuous to look at this as an affordable housing project even if it’s coming from an affordable housing developer,” he added. “You’re still a developer and if you do something 25 percent affordable, is that really what you do? If 75 percent is market rate housing?”
Tenants were especially worried about increased damage to their apartments, which have already been affected by Extell’s pile driving. They’ve been told that repairs will take place after construction is completed, but some complained that they haven’t gotten any response on issues that need immediate assistance, like windows or doors that won’t close. With new construction starting in two years, basically as soon as Extell is finishing, they won’t have much respite from the noise and pollution they’ve been enduring.
Others were concerned how the seniors at 80 Rutgers would fare, and worried they might even be displaced during the upgrade if the plans infringed on parts of the building. “I don’t think we will have to, but there may be some temporary relocations,” Sewell admitted when pressed. “I don’t expect its going to be much, if at all.”
But the conversation often veered from specific concerns over the new building to intense frustration with a lack of communication and accountability between residents and TBNC and Settlement Fund, as well as the management of the current building. At one point, Trever Holland, the resident association president, tried to ask multiple questions he’d gathered from the residents beforehand. Sewell tried to cut him off with a “one question per-person” rule, but faced immediate outcry. “He’s got all our questions!” someone yelled. “He has our best interests!” said another.
Back with the microphone, Holland took them to task for not being more responsive. He pointed out that there haven’t been any tenants meetings with ownership in years, even though it was promised after superstorm Sandy, and that he still hadn’t met the building’s new manager, in charge of helping assess repairs. “I’ve asked both of you for meetings about the construction repairs and about the elevators for months,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve had a resident’s meeting with Victor.” He added that he’d had more positive lines of communication with JDS and even Extell, rather than ownership.
“If you want us to be having more regular tenant meetings, we are happy to do that. We have no problem with having more face to face,” said Sewell. When Holland asked the last meeting she’d been to, she tried to dodge the question but eventually admitted she’d never been to one and committed to coming more often starting “maybe next week.”
Particular animosity was directed towards Papa, who has a long history of preservationist work downtown but also can be an antagonistic figure who has drawn suspicion from residents. During the meeting residents sometimes would not let him speak, calling out insults and yelling that they didn’t trust him.
After the meeting, residents spouted lists of slights perceived, big and small, they’d felt from him over the years, such as denying certain people access to the community room, shutting down community programs for kids or speaking rudely.
“The fact that everybody has a problem with him goes to show he shouldn’t be here, he is just causing animosity,” said resident Niesha Ragin. “Just his presence riles people up. He doesn’t need to be here because he’s not helping anybody.”
When asked about the mood of the evening after the meeting, Papa said, “I think that we did what was necessary to do. I think this was the most difficult meeting that we will ever have. I think the sentiments of the tenants — you better write this—that the sentiments of the tenants are right on in many ways. There’s going to be an inconvenience.”
He added: “We’ll have occasional meetings and progress reports, but we’re going to go through with the plan.”
But residents say they aren’t going to let this go. “They say they want our input, but the bottom line is the decision has already been made,” said Linda Matias, another resident. “So we need to come together as a community, all of the buildings surrounding this area, and stand up and say ‘enough’– we don’t want another 77-story building in our backyard. It just doesn’t make sense to have all these buildings put up around us and have our buildings structurally damaged.”
David Tieu– a spokesman for the Coalition to Protect Chinatown, which is pushing a rezoning plan that would institute height caps in the area– said the group will be working to mobilize their community, building off of past protests against Extell.
This plan will likely continue to be under the magnifying glass, especially in an election year. Many local officials attended last night, especially those running for the Assembly seat in September, including Alice Cancel, Yuh-Line Niou, Paul Newell and Jenifer Rajkumar.