New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Manhattan Express Losing Battles, Supertall Opponents Hope to Win the War by Sydney Pereira

Losing Battles, Supertall Opponents Hope to Win the War

Elected officials and community groups on the Upper East and West Sides went head to head with the developers of two uptown towers at the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) last week  — and though both buildings seem likely to be completed, there is a chance a new zoning precedent could be established to prevent future comparable projects.

Opponents of new towers at 200 Amsterdam Ave., just below W. 70th St., and 180 East 88th St., near Third Ave. — the latter nearly completed — say that developers used zoning loopholes to allow for “out-of-context” buildings significantly taller than would otherwise be allowed.

The BSA upheld building permits for the 200 Amsterdam Ave. project, where developers created a zig-zag-shaped zoning lot to build a 668-foot tower. The building, being developed by SJP Properties, is expected to be the tallest north of 61st St. in Manhattan.

“We are disappointed, but not deterred, by the BSA’s decision,” City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal said in a statement. “Gerrymandering zoning lots in general, and the proposal at 200 Amsterdam Ave. in particular, undermine the integrity of the land use process and open up new loopholes.”

Rosenthal added the July 17 “decision is a setback, but it is not the final word.”

Legal action is being considered, and elected officials and community activists are discussing regulatory solutions to what they see as a looming threat to the Upper East and West Sides’ traditional skyscape.

SJP Properties said the board’s action was consistent with the developers’ clear legal rights.

“We are pleased that the BSA has upheld the [Department of Buildings]’s decision to grant the building permit for 200 Amsterdam,” the developers said in a statement. “Throughout an exhaustive DOB audit and subsequent BSA review, we have consistently demonstrated that 200 Amsterdam was meticulously designed in strict accordance to the NYC zoning code. The BSA’s decision today is further validation that this building fully conforms with all requirements. We remain focused on making continued progress on construction to deliver this exceptional building to the market, and look forward to launching sales for 200 Amsterdam’s new residences this fall.”

The BSA, last Tuesday, also held its first hearing regarding DDG Partners’ mostly finished building at 180 E. 88th St.

Despite the fact that the luxury condo building is more than halfway complete, community groups and elected officials are demanding that the BSA review how developers were allowed to create a “micro-lot” just 10 by 22 feet large to buffer the building from zoning restrictions that would have applied if the building’s lot fronted on E. 88th St. (Under the developers’ original plan, that buffer measured only four by 22 feet.)

“We want the BSA to basically say this tactic shouldn’t have been allowed,” Rachel Levy, executive director at Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, one of several community groups challenging the project, said at a City Hall rally the day before the BSA hearing. “We want to see a change in the building. This building in particular is almost topped out, so we acknowledge that.”

Recognizing the near inevitability of the E. 88th St. project’s height, Levy added, “It’s about all the other buildings coming down the pipeline that we know will start to use this tactic more and more frequently.”

DDG’s rendering of its tower nearing completion at 180 E. 88th St. at Third Ave. | Courtesy of DDG Partners

Councilmember Ben Kallos called the buffer lot a “sham zoning lot,” created so that developers could skirt the zoning rule known as “tower-on-a-base” that would have constrained the building’s height and design had it legally fronted on E. 88th St. In 2015, DDG Partners sold the buffer lot for $10 to a legally separate company, though both entities were under the same name and developer address, Kallos said.

One factor debated by the BSA commissioners last week was whether the tiny lot could conceivably be sold and built upon in the future. Kallos argued no, explaining the lot is adjacent to what is expected to be the building’s main entrance. Though the building has a Third Ave. address in city records, its condos have been advertised as being on E. 88th St.

“The developer never bothered to hide that the unbuildable lot is a sham,” Kallos said in his testimony to the BSA. “Under the terms of federal and state laws, this transaction would likely be considered a fraudulent conveyance in a foreclosure or bankruptcy proceeding.”

Paul Selver of Kramer Levinn Naftalis & Frankel, a lawyer for the company, argued to the BSA that the zoning question under debate should be dealt with legislatively rather than between the DOB and the BSA. Selver also submitted letters from neighbors who support the project. DDG Partners said in a statement that the project complies with all zoning rules.

“This architecturally distinctive project has received all required approvals from the NYC Department of Buildings and complies with the City’s zoning regulations,” a DDG Partners spokesperson said in an email. “We were pleased to present information regarding the appropriateness of the design and the rigorous approval process, and look forward to the 2019 completion of this worthy addition to the Upper East Side.”

In addition to approving the 200 Amsterdam Ave. project, the BSA recently upheld building permits for a 64-story tower on E. 58th St., which the East River Fifties Alliance has been fighting for years.

BSA chair Margery Perlmutter noted the ramifications of the board’s conclusions regarding the E. 88th St. building, emphasizing the effect on neighborhoods should other developers copy the micro-lot buffer approach employed there. She said she didn’t buy any arguments that the building technically faces Third Ave.

“The drawings speak for themselves,” Perlmutter said, adding of the micro-lot abutting E. 88th St., “To say that it not a part of the project is disingenuous.”

Tower-by-tower community fights have been happening across Manhattan and the city — with community organizations arguing that loopholes are being used to build taller buildings to reap larger profits. The crux of the matter for uptowners is more and longer shadows, impacting Central Park, other surrounding parks and playgrounds, and the light generally available on neighborhood streets.

“Every New Yorker should have a right to light and air,” Kallos said at the July 16 rally. “Every New Yorker should be able to see the sky. No one should have to live in the shadows of billionaires.”

Some have argued that increasing the stock of housing will increase affordability, but elected officials uptown say that supertall, luxury condos ultimately displace rent-regulated tenants living in old walk-up buildings.

“[Manhattan] is ground zero where we have to fight to keep all of the ways in which you can build affordable housing,” Borough President Gale Brewer said. “We’ve got to keep affordable housing — every bit of it — in our borough.”

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