New York Times Development-Weary Neighborhood Tries to Block a New Luxury Tower by Charles V. Bagli
Over the past 15 years, developers in seemingly every corner of the city have built luxury towers claiming to be the tallest residential skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere — or, in less grandiose cases, in Queens, or SoHo, or near Central Park in Midtown Manhattan.
But in a test of wills, residents and elected officials on the East Side have drawn a line in the sand.
They are in a race against the clock with a developer who plans to erect a 67-story supertower on a stretch of East 58th Street between First Avenue and Sutton Place.
The developer, Gamma Real Estate, has already demolished three four-story walk-ups and started digging a hole for the slim tower’s foundation.
But at the end of June, the Buildings Department shut down work on the site, after inspectors responding to an emergency call discovered small cracks in the foundation of a building next door.
Opponents of the project are hoping that the city will approve a zoning change for the neighborhood by Labor Day — before Gamma can resume work — that would limit the height of towers on side streets to about 21 stories.
If Gamma is instead able to get permission to resume construction and complete a substantial portion of the foundation before the rezoning, its tower will be allowed to rise to its full 800-foot height.
“New Yorkers are exhausted by overdevelopment,” said Ben Kallos, the city councilman who represents the area and a leading opponent of the tall tower. “This is about standing up and showing the city that there’s another way to do things.”
Critics of the project say that supertall towers in residential areas tend to overwhelm the neighborhood and displace less wealthy residents. Still, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, rezoned large sections of the city for ever taller buildings.
The zoning change, which was proposed by Mr. Kallos and other elected officials as well as neighborhood residents, has been in the works for two years. The proposed rezoning was recently approved by the Manhattan borough president, Gale Brewer, and unanimously endorsed by the local community board. Mr. Kallos hopes that the City Council will approve the proposal after the city’s Planning Department holds a public hearing on the matter in August.
Jon Kalikow, the president of Gamma Real Estate, said that it would be a “disastrous outcome” if the city were to adopt the rezoning proposal for a small portion of the Upper East Side, a process known as spot zoning.
“This would set a horrendous precedent in New York, enabling rich folks to stop a nearby building they didn’t like,” he said.
“The last thing we want to do is go to the courts,” Mr. Kalikow added. “Our goal is not to fight with our neighbors. The fact of the matter is that the amount of money we invested here is based on what we can build” under the current zoning.
Mr. Kalikow took over the project after the original developer, Joseph P. Beninati, defaulted on a total of $147 million in loans from Gamma. To assemble the building site, Mr. Beninati had spent a fortune buying three walk-ups on the south side of 57th Street and unused development rights from nearby buildings.
He even offered a resident of another building, Herndon Werth, $1 million to vacate his rent-regulated apartment so he could buy his building and demolish it. Mr. Werth, 81, declined, saying, “I ain’t going anywhere.”
Mr. Beninati’s intention was to build an 80-story, 900-foot-tall tower, the latest addition to Billionaires’ Row, a stretch of Midtown where developers have erected skyscrapers with apartments selling in the $5,000-a-square-foot range, affordable only to those whose assets exceed mere millions. But he alienated local residents and was unable to secure financing.
Gamma took control of the site early this year and brought in the architect Thomas Juul-Hansen to design a sleek but somewhat smaller tower, though still more than 800 feet tall. The renderings available from the developer show only the front doors and the eight lowest floors.
Rather than marketing the apartments to wealthy foreigners who could afford Mr. Beninati’s planned $43.5 million penthouse, Mr. Kalikow said the tower would attract wealthy New Yorkers. “This is very much New York,” he said.
But Mr. Kalikow said he had been hampered by local opponents, many of whom live in the Sovereign, a 47-story apartment building directly across the street from Gamma’s site. They do not want to lose their view, Mr. Kalikow said.
In an irony not lost on anyone, the Sovereign was the overly tall luxury tower that residents complained about when it opened its doors in 1975. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing for The New York Times, described it at the time as “brutally destructive of the scale of 58th Street and Sutton Place.”
Alan Kersh, a resident of the Sovereign and the founding president of the East River Fifties Alliance, which opposes the new tower, said there was a great deal of opposition in his building. But with an apartment on the 26th floor, his views would be blocked regardless of whether Gamma’s proposed tower or a smaller building was built.
The rezoning, he said, would protect residential side streets in the area from tall towers. Developers would be able to increase the size of their buildings by a couple of floors if they included units reserved for poor and moderate-income tenants who live in the area.
“It’s not about one building, the Sovereign — it’s about the whole neighborhood,” Mr. Kersh said. “This building could dramatically change the character of our neighborhood.”
Mr. Kersh, whose day job involves investing pension funds in multifamily rental housing, said that the alliance was composed of more than 2,200 supporters, and that 45 co-ops and condominiums contributed varying amounts of money for the campaign against the tower.
Mr. Kallos, the city councilman, began organizing against the tower shortly after he heard about Mr. Beninati’s plans. He was joined by City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who represents an adjoining district, and State Senator Liz Krueger.
As Gamma started demolition earlier this year, Mr. Kallos said he had urged local residents like Charles Fernandez to call 911 if they felt their buildings were in jeopardy from the demolition and excavation work on the cramped site.
At the end of June, Mr. Fernandez said his sister Isabel Fernandez had called the Fire Department after she felt the building shudder.
“It’s an old building,” Mr. Fernandez said. “We feared the building might collapse.”
The Buildings Department said that buildings on either side of the construction site were not in danger of collapsing. But the developer was ordered to shore up the underpinning for the adjoining buildings and to continually monitor the site. Work cannot restart until there is another inspection.
Mr. Kalikow said that he had complied with the inspector’s instructions, but worried that the situation had become so politicized that he does not know when he can resume work.
His opponent Mr. Kallos said, “I’m seeing some daylight,” and added: “It’s a fight to the finish.”