Mayor de Blasio and council member Chin at the well-attended town hall meeting in the Lower East Side © Kasper van Laarhoven

Over 300 residents of the Lower East Side and Chinatown gathered in a Bowery gym for Mayor de Blasio’s 27th town hall Wednesday, and we probably don’t have to tell you what the theme of the evening was. You guessed it: gentrification, particularly with regard to the 60-plus-story towers rising over Two Bridges.

Both protesters outside and participants inside stated that the city isn’t doing enough to protect its low- and middle-income families. A woman in a wheelchair shared the story of how she had succumbed to a stroke due to the pressures of a bullying landlord. Someone else plead for protection of local mom ‘n pops, while a third explained that she wasn’t able to find an affordable home in Two Bridges, where she had lived all her life. She said that, because of the expensive high-rise buildings going up all around them, she, her husband and their newborn were stuck living at her mom’s.

De Blasio said that he understood why a lot of anger is directed at “the big new building.” He added, however, that “the big new building is just a symptom of something that’s been going on for a lot of time.” Referring to his own stint as an NYU undergrad, the mayor described how he has seen the East Village and the Lower East Side change over the past 40 years from a place “nobody wanted to live” to popular hot spots of gentrification. He urged people to see both sides of the issue, noting that “gentrification brought more safety, more economic development.” Bigger trends changed the reality in the city, he said, not just the new high-rise buildings.

The young mother responded by connecting high-rise development back to gentrification, explaining how luxury condos have an indirect impact on the cost of living in that neighborhood, thereby pushing longtime residents out. In reply, the mayor mentioned Bushwick and Bed-Stuy as examples of how gentrification in New York happens without skyscrapers as well.

He added that there was little he could do about the Two Bridges skyscrapers, because they had been decided on by former administrations. However, another resident remarked that the de Blasio administration had rejected their call for an extensive review of the building plans (ULURP), instead opting for an environmental review (EIS), which is a less powerful and– for citizens– more labor-intensive tool to curb the plans of real estate developers.

The area is set to get a 79-story building at 247 Cherry Street, a 62-story building at 259 Clinton Street, and 62- and 69-story buildings at 260 South Street. An 80-story tower being built by Extell at 229 Cherry Street is promising luxury amenities like “the best private sports club in Manhattan.” Meanwhile, construction of the tower has damaged neighboring buildings.

The mayor said that his administration would do its best to steer the implementation of the plans towards affordability. For one, housing commissioner Maria Torres-Springer said, the developers of the towers had volunteered to offer 35 percent affordable housing in exchange for tax benefits. Other ways in which the administration attempts to support residents with limited means, de Blasio said, is by “protecting the three million people who are in affordable housing and adding another half million people to the ranks.” This consists, in part, of providing a free lawyer in case of mistreatment or threats of eviction by bully landlords.

As Mayor de Blasio warded off criticism inside, some 50 protesters outside focused their anger not only at him, but also at local council member Margaret Chin. In 2013, the Chinatown Working Group, a coalition of over 50 local organizations, proposed a plan to rezone the neighborhood and cap the allowed height of new buildings, as happened in 2012 for the East Village. The Department of City Planning shot down the plan for being too expansive and the protesters felt their council member hadn’t done enough to support them in their struggle. “Council Member Chin has sold off the community that elected her,” said protester Sarah Ahn, of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. “Time and time again she says one thing to us and does something else.”

Protesters gathered outside the town hall meeting, calling for de Blasio and Chin to step down © Kasper van Laarhoven

Reached over the phone, Paul Leonard, a spokesperson for Council Member Chin, disagreed with the protesters’ criticism, emphasizing how Chin has publicly opposed the construction of the Two Bridges skyscrapers. On the question of Chin’s support for the Chinatown rezoning plan, Leonard said, “It is safe to say that the council member is interested in any future changes that would cap the height of development.” Chin has proposed legislation that would require the city to notify local residents when urban renewal areas are about to expire, as happened in 2007 in the waterfront area where the supertalls are now rising. During a City Council hearing earlier this month, she said the development “makes me sick to my stomach,” and added, “What is being proposed is totally out of scale. We cannot allow [the plan] to go forward,” The Lo-Down reported.

If the deed follows the word, Ahn and her fellow protesters will welcome this statement. “All we’re asking for is equal protection,” Ahn said. “Because when the East Village got protection, what it did was, it pushed all of the luxury development into our area. I mean, if a developer can’t build there, obviously they’re going to the next place and build it.”