New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Our Town Bid to lid high-rise heights by Douglas Feiden

Bid to lid high-rise heights

    Citizen 360, on First Avenue and East 89th Street, towers above its traditional red-brick neighbors. The mostly low-rise precinct is filling up with cloud-piercing towers, leading community and political leaders to seek height limits on future buildings. Photo: Douglas Feiden


    A view down East 89th Street from First Avenue captures the changing face of the Upper East Side. Citizen 360, at left, and two other towers (center and right) soar above their low-rise neighbors. The explosion of new skyscrapers have led local leaders to seek height caps on future buildings. Photo: Douglas Feiden

Over the past decade, a forest of slender, cloud-piercing towers has been shoehorned into modest-sized lots along West 57th Street and lower Fifth Avenue. Skyscrapers on broader footprints have shot up from the Hudson Yards to the World Trade Center.

While not on the same scale, even the Upper West Side — long resistant to bulky, boxy, outsized glass-sheathed structures — has been getting its fair share since 2007, when the 37-story Ariel East and 31-story Ariel West first dwarfed its neighbors in the Broadway corridor.

For years, the Upper East Side, with plenty of exceptions, was a low-rise redoubt. Not anymore. The dawn of the Second Avenue subway, and a long-anticipated, if embryonic, eastward flow of residents, has fueled a construction boom that is literally raising the roof on the neighborhood.

And it has already provoked a significant backlash: Community Board 8, which represents the old Silk Stocking District, and City Council Member Ben Kallos, who has campaigned to “Stop Super-Scrapers,” are backing a proposal to rein in the loftier heights sought by dozens of developers.

“No one wants to live in the shadow of a billionaire,” Kallos said in an interview. “When you have buildings that are 60- or 100-feet high, and then suddenly someone wants to build 500-feet high or taller, well, that is when folks take exception.”

Under the plan, mandated zoning changes would restrict the height of new buildings on York, First, Second and Third Avenues to 210 feet, or roughly 21 stories. If a developer included a fixed amount of affordable housing on-site, a residence would be allowed to spring up to 260 feet, or about 26 stories, which would be 24 percent taller.

The aim is to boost quality of life, maintain existing housing stock, keep shadows at bay, and preserve affordability and the low-rise lifestyle and infrastructure that has long defined the East Side, backers say.

There are currently no height limits under the existing higher density zoning districts mapped out along the four avenues, meaning that, at least theoretically, structures of unlimited height are now permitted to rise on that broad swath of real estate.

That’s a stark contrast with the 210-foot height cap now in place along parts of Park Avenue, as well as on East 72nd, 79th, 86th and 96th Streets, according to research by the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, which first advanced the proposal to mitigate the impacts of development in 2015.

CB8 approved the measure at a full board meeting in September, and on October 25th, at a meeting of the board’s Zoning and Development Committee at the Church of the Holy Trinity at 316 East 88th Street, it discussed potential zoning text amendments and how best to steer them through the city’s regulatory process.

Don’t expect swift action: CB8 or other community advocates would have to prepare a formal zoning application, which can be both costly and time-consuming. It would then face a lengthy public-review process and would require approvals from the Department of City Planning, the City Council, and ultimately, the mayor’s office before it could be enacted.

And in the meantime, any new development projects — and multiple high-rise condominiums are already in the pipeline — that initiate their demolition-and-foundation work before a zoning modification takes place would be grandfathered in.

That fast pace of out-of-scale construction has spurred community leaders and elected officials to take up the cudgels.

“The affordable housing stock in five-story walk-ups, especially those that border the corners on the avenues, have been coming down, and luxury housing has been going up,” said James Clynes, the chairman of CB8.

“The idea is to save affordable housing and also to preserve light and air in the neighborhood,” he added. “As more and more tall buildings go up, everybody’s light and air is being stolen from them.”

For a quarter century, the 54-floor, 623-foot Trump Palace, which was built in 1991 at 200 East 69th Street, was deemed the tallest on the Upper East Side. For the time being, that record appears to be safe.

But the simultaneous rise over the past two years of numerous luxury condo towers some 20 blocks to the north, where they were never as common, has sparked the recent community backlash.

The inventory includes the 31-floor, 521-foot, 48-unit 180 East 88th Street, which is expected to open in 2018, and the 30-story, 367-foot, 83-condo The Kent, at 200 East 95th Street, which topped out in April and is expected to bow by the end of the year.

Also putting on the finishes touch for an end-of-year debut is the 34-floor, 351-foot Citizen 360, at 360 East 89th Street.

“Whenever I speak to residents, their top concern, after the Marine Transfer Station and bikes, is overdevelopment,” Kallos said. “No matter where you go on the East Side, people will talk to you about overdevelopment. Folks are getting a little bit tired of all this construction.”


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