It’s not just the panoramic view of midtown Manhattan that Phyllis Hattis loves about her 48th-floor apartment. It’s also the sunlight that illuminates “Woman Drawing,” one of several Pablo Picasso works that adorn her walls.
“To see this painting without light and without air is to lose it,” said Hattis, a private art adviser and collector. She has reason to be concerned. Outside her window, on a narrow stretch of 58th Street near Sutton Place, a developer is proposing a 90-story condominium tower of almost 1,000 feet (305 meters), bringing a slice of Midtown’s super-tall building frenzy to the quieter fringes of the far east side.
Developer Bauhouse Group paid $32.3 million for three low-rise buildings on the tree-lined block last January, and since then has been acquiring air rights from neighboring properties, which can be used to pile height onto the planned luxurytower. It’s all permissible, or, in construction lingo, “as of right.” The 55-year-old zoning rules that govern a 10-block stretch of the area impose no height restrictions on buildings.
So, late last week, residents of the waterfront enclave asked the city to change that, filing a proposal to rezone the Sutton Place neighborhood before the builder can get the plans off the ground.
“We are racing the clock, but I would warn any investor that this is a poor investment,” said Councilman Ben Kallos, one of the applicants on the rezoning proposal filed with the city planning department. “This neighborhood will rezone before this building can go up. I’m so tired of people saying that ‘as of right’ means the community can do nothing.”
Bauhouse is moving forward with its plans for the Norman Foster-designed tower and has already begun demolition at the site, said Elizabeth Latino, a spokeswoman for the Greenwich, Connecticut-based firm that’s led by Joseph Beninati. “Our project will be nearing completion by the time any rezoning would be heard.”
The rezoning proposal, whose applicants also include Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, seeks to allow high-rise development that’s more “contextual” with the neighborhood, said Alan Kersh, president of the co-op board at the Sovereign on 58th Street, where Hattis and her art collection also reside.
“Our community needs protection from out-of-scale, out-of-character, super-tall mega buildings within our residential neighborhoods,” said Kersh, who helped organize the residents group known as the East River 50s Alliance. The zoning laws were written at a time “when engineering capabilities never envisioned building such a tall building on such a small piece of land.”
If the residents’ application is approved -- a process that would take longer than a year and include a public-comment period -- the new zoning designation would cover the areas from 52nd through 59th streets, east of First Avenue and to the edge of the East River, according to the alliance.
New buildings in the zone would be capped at about 25 stories or 260 feet, which is taller than what’s allowed in nearby residential neighborhoods, said Christopher Rizzo, an attorney with Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP who advised the alliance. The added height is intended as a possible incentive for developers to include much-needed affordable housing in their projects, he said.
Amid a luxury construction boom, in which builders are racing each other to the sky, the proposed height caps are a preservation measure for the neighborhood, where several other low-rise buildings are tempting targets for mega-tower developers, Rizzo said.
“You cannot buy up air rights from neighboring buildings endlessly,” he said. “A 1,000-foot-tall tower will cast a shadow over many, many neighborhoods, not just this one.”
As land prices escalate to records, builders have focused on constructing ever larger and more-lavish towers as a way of recouping costs, according to Jonathan Miller, president of appraisal firm Miller Samuel Inc.
“If you want to be a developer today, your hand is forced,” Miller said in a Bloomberg Radio interview on Monday. “The price of land is based on the idea that you have to build that tall so there’s really no choice because the profit is at the height.”
For Hattis, the new skyscraper would block light from a collection that includes Andy Warhol’s homage to Matisse’s “Woman in Blue,” and a Picasso terracotta vase depicting the artist’s dancing mistress. The vase is perched on a cabinet by her living room window, where it’s framed by the unobstructed views of downtown and the East River skyline.
“The art and life surrounding us would be dwarfed” by a super-tall tower, said Hattis, who’s lived in her building for 25 years. “We would not only be dwarfed by the scale, but I feel like I would be in a dungeon -- in chains.”.”