New York Times 4-Foot-Wide Lot, Carved Out by Developers, Causes Big Stir in Manhattan by J. David Goodman
Developers of a 32-floor luxury tower got approval from the city to slice off a four-foot-wide piece of the property between the building’s base and the street, which is to the right, behind the brick building. Credit Tina Fineberg for The New York Times
In 2014, a developer sought approval for an odd alteration to a lot on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Instead of a 30-foot-deep lot, abutting East 88th Street, the developer sliced off a narrow sliver only four feet wide.
The change, approved by New York City, became part of the official map of taxable lots that November. But the motivation behind it became clearer only in recent months.
That thin buffer between the building’s lot and the street allowed the developers, DDG Partners, to avoid an array of requirements for a structure’s shape and size when it touches the street — and ultimately, opponents of the project say, build a tower about 60 feet higher. The Upper East Side tower takes its address from 88th Street, but because of the tiny lot, the entrance is around the corner on Third Avenue.
With permits issued in March, the developers have wasted no time: Rebar jutted out in clusters above street level on a recent afternoon from the poured foundation of what is to be among the neighborhood’s tallest towers. Signs outside announce the multimillion-dollar condominiums now on the market. Height, one of the developers has said, is a major selling point.
A rendering of a 521-foot luxury condominium tower to be built near the intersection of East 88th Street and Third Avenue.
But the fast-rising 521-foot tower, known as 180 East 88th Street and approved by the city’s Buildings Department, now faces a challenge from residents and elected officials arguing that the developers, who donated at least $19,900 to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign and causes, used a novel tactic to circumvent zoning regulations and build taller than would ordinarily be allowed.
Their argument centers on the four-foot-wide lot along 88th Street.
“There’s lots of little lots in Manhattan, some that are five square feet, but they’re relics, or they provide access,” said George M. Janes, a planning expert who has been working with local opponents of the tower. “This is novel; this is new; this is a very aggressive strategy.”
The brewing fight over a soaring luxury tower in one of the city’s more rarefied neighborhoods highlights how a surge in residential development has rankled New Yorkers up and down the economic ladder.
And the presence of DDG Partners on the rolls of donors to the 2013 campaign of Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, and among the contributors last year to his political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, emphasizes the way in which donations appear to have become a cost of doing business in the city. Many of those who have given to the nonprofit, which advocated the mayor’s policies but is now defunct, are developers or others who do business with the city.
Councilman Ben Kallos, a Democrat from the Upper East Side, sent a letter to the Buildings Department last Monday requesting an immediate stop-work order for the tower, arguing that the “unbuildable lot” could create a “dangerous precedent for a new and dangerous loophole.”
In March 2014, the department said the project could go forward with the adjacent lot along 88th Street. But at the time of that approval, the lot proposed by the developer was more than 30 feet deep — a size that could be developed into a separate building.
After that determination, the developers shrunk its size and filed papers with the city that created the new four-foot-wide property, known as Tax Lot 138. Plans describe the space between the building, Tax Lot 37, and the side street, designed as a garden for residents that is open to the street, as a “rear yard.”
Mr. Kallos, in his letter, a copy of which was shared with The New York Times, wrote that the "sole purpose” of the small parcel was “to frustrate the intent of the zoning resolution.”
The developers of the luxury tower, DDG Partners, got approval from the city to place a four-foot buffer between the proposed tower and the street. Opponents of the project say it allows the developers to circumvent some zoning laws and build higher. CreditTina Fineberg for The New York Times
The Manhattan borough president, Gale A. Brewer, a Democrat, has also questioned the city’s approval of the tower. “At first glance, this project looks like a prime example where the Department of Buildings has failed to enforce the law,” Ms. Brewer said. “The zoning here is what it is, not what the developer wishes it were.”
There has been no allegation of wrongdoing by the de Blasio administration in connection with the project or favorable treatment afforded to the developers.
But the Buildings Department, which approved permits for construction, said it was currently reviewing its earlier rulings. “We are auditing this project for compliance with the city’s construction codes and zoning resolution,” a department spokesman, Alex Schnell, said in a statement. “D.O.B. conducts thousands of such audits every year.”
Mr. Janes, who was hired by Carnegie Hill Neighbors to analyze the site, said the developers appeared to be seeking to avoid building a bigger base for the tower, which would be required if the lot touched 88th Street. And the square footage that would have had to go into that extra base could be used instead to add additional height to the 521-foot tower. If required to add to the base, he said, the tower might have to be shortened by about 60 feet, or roughly six floors in a typical building.
Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents part of the Upper East Side, at a news conference after a brick fell from a Manhattan building in 2015. He wrote a letter to the city’s Building Department last week, calling the four-foot plot an “unbuildable lot” that could lead to a “dangerous precedent for a new and dangerous loophole.”CreditBenjamin Norman for The New York Times
“It’s a blatant device,” Lo van der Valk, the president of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, said. “That principle, we have to put it to the city: Do you allow this? Did you do this intentionally?”
The luxury tower, part of a boom in slim-but-tall condominium buildings, is designed to have soaring rooms with floor-to-floor heights of about 15 feet. The chief executive of DDG, Joseph A. McMillan Jr., said in an interview this year that the tower could have been built even taller. Still, he said at the time, its height would be a draw for buyers “because it offers 360-degree views that are mostly unobstructed.”
The pricing reflects Mr. McMillan’s philosophy: Apartment 42, a four-bedroom unit three stories from the top that takes up an entire floor, is listed at $15.5 million.
Though it would be taller than the surrounding apartment buildings, its 32 floors would be roughly equivalent in number to the broad but shorter brown-brick building facing it on Third Avenue.
“We do have tall buildings on Third Avenue, but none are this tall,” Mr. van der Valk said. His concern is not that the tower would gentrify the neighborhood, which includes a Whole Foods Market across the street. “It’s already gentrified,” he said. Rather, the issue is forcing developers to abide by zoning regulations. “We’re challenging an approval,” he added.
Mr. McMillan declined a request for comment on challenges to the project or his and his firm’s donations to Mr. de Blasio. Through a spokeswoman, the developers said in a statement that they “have and will continue to support public officials with a positive economic development platform that allows New York City to remain a beacon and attraction for the rest of the world.”
A version of this article appears in print on May 23, 2016, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: 4-Foot-Wide Lot, Carved Out by Builders, Causes Big Stir on Upper East Side.