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LES and Chinatown Residents Sue To Halt New Towers in Two Bridges, Citing New NY Constitutional Right to Clean Air

Residents say they fear more pollution in an area that was hit hard by 9/11 and COVID-19 and are demanding a new environmental assessment that factors in the pandemic.

SHARE LES and Chinatown Residents Sue To Halt New Towers in Two Bridges, Citing New NY Constitutional Right to Clean Air

A Lower East Side resident held an anti-Two Bridges development placard, Oct. 21, 2022.

Stephon Johnson/THE CITY

As construction is slated to begin on three towers in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, a legal offense is mounting to stop it by invoking the new constitutional right in New York to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” 

On Friday, Councilmember Christopher Marte (D-Manhattan), the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side and other neighborhood residents filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court against the city and four property developers responsible for the construction of the Two Bridges towers, a multi-site development effort.

Bethany Li, legal director for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of community groups, said many who live in the area are medically vulnerable to air pollution, especially after 9/11.

“Some of the residents that we’re representing as plaintiffs have been there since then and actually have continued to experience respiratory illness and disease as a result,” Li said. “These environmental impacts, compounded post 9/11, the COVID-19 pandemic and then adding these huge 60-something, 80-story towers to the neighborhood is really just going to be a knockout punch to the neighborhood.”

The suit argues that construction of the three 60 to 80 story buildings will exacerbate environmental and health burdens the neighborhood already faces, and infringe on  residents’ newly established right to clean air and a healthful environment enshrined in the New York Constitution via a ballot proposal New Yorkers approved last November.

The new constitutional right created by the Green Amendment has yet to be tested in practice.

A Law Department spokesperson, Nicholas Paolucci, said “We haven’t seen this lawsuit. We’ll review the case once we are served and respond in the litigation.”

The plaintiffs are looking for the city to update the project’s environmental impact statement, which was completed in 2018, to take impacts of the pandemic into account. 

Such statements, required under state law for major development projects, detail myriad projected impacts on light, traffic, school attendance and much more in a neighborhood. Community opponents have commonly gone to court to challenge EIS paperwork as flawed in attempts to block development plans.  

Now, the new state constitutional right ups the ammunition local groups can bring to the fight.  

The new lawsuit is the first time the so-called Green Amendment has been used to try and stop a planned New York City development. 

Two lawsuits filed earlier this year have cited the constitutional amendment in claims that a landfill where the City of New York sends some of its trash is impinging on the rights to clean air and a healthful environment.

Marte, the local Council member, said that he is ready to take the Green Amendment out for a test drive.

“We’re excited to file this lawsuit,” he told THE CITY. “Tenants, residents, advocates have been organizing against these luxury towers for some time now, and…voters voted in the last New York state ballot for greater protection when it comes to clean air. 

He added: “In this area there’s already a lot of climate injustice and a lot of racism when it comes to what gets developed and what gets filled and what gets repaired.” 

‘Coughing on Blood’

According to the NYU Furman Center’s neighborhood profile of the Lower East Side/Chinatown, the majority of Manhattan Community Board 3, 66% of residents are people of color and almost 28% of households made less than $20,000 a year. The median household income of $43,400 is 40% less than the city average of $72,930. 

“It takes a lot, I think, to really roll back the years of environmental racism that have impacted residents in the neighborhood, and this is one piece of it,” said Li.

“I have damage to my lungs where I was coughing on blood after the World Trade Center,” said 61-year-old doorman and local resident Antonio Quey Lin, referencing 9/11. “I’ve had this cough for like 20 years. If they dig all this stuff up, they’re supposed to, you know, take safeguards and they haven’t taken any safeguards. There’s a whole bunch of different things to do to prevent, you know, from throwing these things into the air and throwing asbestos back into the air.”

‘Victims of NIMBYism’

Kate Kurera, deputy director Environmental Advocates NY,  a nonprofit with no ties to the lawsuit, said that “there’s a lot of questions still out there in terms of how it will be applied by the court [and] we have to test the contours of what this means.”

Responding to concerns that the suit could create a new legal pathway for NIMBY or “Not in My Back Yard” actors across the city to block new developments, Stuart Sia, spokesman for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that’s a misreading of the term.

The spirit of NIMBYism, is ‘Don’t do this to us, do this to someone else,’” Sia said. “The largely Asian, Black, and Latino communities of LES and Chinatown have themselves been victims of NIMBYism. It is their backyards that harmful industries get dumped on and where unwanted developments that do more harm than good get erected. This [isn’t] so much about NIMBYism as it is about correcting the decades of historical environmental racism this neighborhood has faced. That’s what this lawsuit is about.”

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