Anxiety over the 77-story apartment building coming to the Two Bridges waterfront multiplied last night as neighbors grappled with the possibility that two more towers will join it.
In addition to Extell’s controversial One Manhattan Square, L+M Development Partners are feeling out plans for two 50-story twin towers– one at 265-275 Cherry Street, at Lands End II (a pair of Section-8 housing complexes located on a site that was purchased for $279 million a few years back) and a second at Lands End I (257 South Street), which the firm bought last year. L+M has assured that the existing buildings will maintain their Section 8 designation, and preliminary discussions have indicated that the two new towers would likely go up in the parking lots parcels between the East River and Lands End.
As you might expect, last night at the fifth in a series of construction meetings between the developers and Two Bridges residents, the tension was palpable. “I want to make sure that we have a relationship with the developers moving forward,” Trever Holland, president of the Two Bridges Tower Residents Association, told his neighbors at the start of the meeting. “Because it looks like our neighborhood is about to get two more buildings.”
One Manhattan Square’s massive height and oligarch appeal have inspired the neighborhood’s wrath since Extell bought the former Pathmark grocery site in 2013 and subsequently announced its plans to build an 823-foot-high tower, complete with a much smaller, separate building devoted to affordable housing. (The main tower’s height is just short of the 861-foot-tall Trump World Tower near the United Nations.) The luxury tower and its plethora of pimped-out amenities represent a new way of life that’s antithetical to Two Bridges, an area of diverse ethnic backgrounds, languages, and income brackets all living cheek-to-cheek in affordable and mixed-income high rises, old tenement walk-ups, and NYCHA-run public housing.
Last night, Extell’s crew of community liaisons and fixers assembled inside the Lands End II community center– a Two Bridges low-income housing complex that’s just one part of a large community that will be living in the shadow of One Manhattan Square. As massive, 80-story development with a so-called “poor door” (or separate access for affordable housing tenants– which seems to be Extell’s bread and butter), continues to rise above the neighborhood, area residents have raised new concerns as things have become more, well, real.
Laura Bush, a rep from Extell’s general contractor, Lend Lease, gave a quick rundown of where One Manhattan Square currently stands. “Excavation-foundation work is substantially complete, superstructure concrete on the western side of the site is progressing, and we’re currently working on the 5th floor,” she said. As of now, the complex will be “substantially complete” by the “end of 2019.”
One of the first concerns Holland articulated involves the traffic situation on Cherry Street, which will be retrofitted with a roundabout directing cars through the development and back out on to the main drag. “We’re worried about kids crossing,” he said.
Raizy Haas, an executive from Extell (the developers behind One57 in Midtown, where a duplex penthouse sold for $100.4 million last year), batted away the stream of concerns and questions issued by neighbors. Eventually, Holland and Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, seemed to realize the traffic worries weren’t going to be settled anytime soon, and agreed that they’d have to bring the Department of Transportation (DOT) in on the discussion. “We need to look at the whole thing and then make sure the residents come to a meeting [with DOT],” Stetzer smiled. “Because the residents know what happens in the area.”
While Holland did the best he could to keep questions inline with construction concerns (the stated purpose of the meeting) residents clearly had a lot more on their minds, including doubts about the final product and lingering concerns about Extell’s construction operation, including the safety of their own homes in the process.
One of the biggest issues of the meeting, was the problem of damages made to the 82 Rutgers building. The resulting cracks splintering around the mixed-income affordable housing building were brought on by foundation work at the Extell site. Holland, who also happens to be a resident of the building, described the ensuing situation as “one of the worst experiences ever.”
While clearly the worst-case scenario didn’t occur, the cracks caused major problems and led to some seriously stressful situations. One tenant, Grisel Vias, recounted her own story at the meeting. “I was one of those people who when, I went to open my door, I was stuck,” she said. “It was a bad experience.”
After the meeting, Vias, told B+B that the incident had occurred when a large breach in her exterior wall put enough pressure on her door frame to block her from being able to enter or exit her apartment. “On an early morning, I attempted to leave my home and my door wouldn’t open. I had to call security and they pushed from the outside while I pulled from the inside to release the door,” she recalled. “It wasn’t a great feeling and it was very nerve-wracking. Also my mailbox wasn’t able to be opened as usual, they used some tools to hammer and push it out.”
Several others chimed in with similar experiences, while Holland played the role of intermediary, pointing out that they’d had “several” meetings with the developers already to address the repairs. However, it was clear that concerns weren’t going away so easily.
“The repairs to the residences, as I understand, are going very well,” explained Anthony Abbruzzese, senior vice president of construction at Extell. “And the next phase, as I understand, is to repair the common areas.”
One resident wasn’t satisfied with the sparse explanation, saying that instead, he’d prefer Extell to provide residents with a report from an engineer, certifying that there wouldn’t be any more “settlement”– or the shifting of the ground that caused the cracks to occur in the 82 Rutgers structure. “In the spirit of transparency and safety, we would like to see a report,” he pressed.
“I can’t commit to sharing that openly,” Abbruzzese replied. “We do expect to bring closure to this in the very, very near future.” He went on to promise that Extell would issue a “more complete response by next week.”
Each back-and-forth was more and more like pulling teeth with the developers, even when it came to the concessions that Extell has already made to the Two Bridges community, which have included beautifying common areas that would be accessible for existing residents, luxury occupants, and affordable tenants alike. One such pittance was Extell’s promise of a “green wall” extending throughout a common plaza that would occupy the space between existing Two Bridges buildings and One Manhattan Square. Details were scant at last night’s meeting, but renderings have shown a well-lit, tree-and-shrub lined pathway.
“You had mentioned that we could participate in the green wall and in selecting pavers for the walkway,” Holland said. “I assume– even now that other two towers are coming to the area– that you’re going to build as you’re going to build, and that the green wall’s going to be the same, and that hopefully we can use that walkway to get to the plaza and the daycare center?”
Haas proceeded with her words carefully. “So Trever, as we discussed in the past,” she began. “We presented a few different options to beautify that area, which includes the walkway, to a certain degree– given the unknown of what’s happening next door, I think the wise thing to do is to put it on hold for now and see if that project is happening or not. We’re committed to doing this, we said we would do it, we will do it– I just don’t think right now is the time to pursue that.”
Extell seemed to be intent on putting off discussion of a number of previous agreements like this one, including employment opportunities. Haas took a moment to introduce Rodney Washington– “Our first local hire on the job.” Washington, a union worker decked out in a shirt that read “Organize or Die,” stood up. “I’ve been over here [on the job] three months now,” he explained. “I’ve been [living] down here all my life.”
“And we hope that more people apply for work on the job site,” Haas said. “Obviously they have to be qualified.”
Holland also pushed Extell’s executive rep, Haas, to stake a position on whether or not the retail shops would be required to hire locally. “I’m sure there will be some opportunity for local-hiring for the retail use and for some staffing in the building, but again, it’s a little early in the project,” she said, somewhat elusively.
Stetzer interrupted. “It’s really not early– we’ve done it on other projects that were still concepts, and came to an agreement that would happen,” she said.
Haas immediately turned on the robotic diction of someone answering in a lawyerly, evasive way. “We’re certainly committed to working with the local community to encourage local hiring,” she said. “My response [in the past] was we’re committed to working together, but it would be helpful if all the different groups unified and come to us with a plan.”
At this point Stetzer grew increasingly frustrated. “We have that– that’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said. “It’s called the Lower East Side Employment Network, it’s a coalition of all the workforce development in the neighborhood. If a new one pops up, they can join. It’s inclusive, it’s for everyone.” The conversation came to a dead end at that point.
The same went for most other hopeful entreaties made by the community. Holland’s proposition to consider opening up the affordable grocery store promised by Extell “a little earlier than 2019” was shot down. Similarly, when a Two Bridges’ resident asked about whether or not the developers would be producing an environmental impact study, Haas noted that, as an “as-of-right” development, they could proceed without satisfying any special zoning or affordability requirements. “As of right,” an oft-used term for the real-estate industry, city planners, and public officials, isn’t exactly common nomenclature for everyone, and clearly the resident was a little blindsided by Haas’s curt explanation. “We didn’t ask for any special treatment or any special favors, as with a lot of other projects,” Haas pointed out.
At this moment it was clear there was a wide gap between the developers’ understanding of their stake in the community and what the existing residents who live in the Two Bridges area see as decent behavior on the part of newcomers.
“This is one of those towers that falls beyond the scope of zoning,” Holland offered as an explanation to his neighbor. “On the Lower East Side, on the waterfront, there are basically no zoning restrictions. What we’ve been trying to do as a neighborhood is get some zoning restrictions, because right now any tower built on the waterfront does not have a height cap.”
The meeting began to wind down with Haas’s attempt at a recovery when one senior woman asked her to reiterate what seemed like a simple point. “If you can repeat what you are bringing to the community, and then I will know how it affects the community as it stands,” the woman said. Hass pointed out, rather sunnily, that what was once an “underutilized site” will include more than 200 affordable units, new retail, and “a beautiful and architecturally-appealing” building. “It will bring a vibrancy to this neighborhood,” she said.