UPPER EAST SIDE, NY — Extell Development's Gary Barnett revealed few details Tuesday night during a Community Board meeting to discuss his firm's planned full-block developments on First Avenue between East 79th and 80th streets and East 85th and 86th streets.
The developer behind some of New York City's skyline-altering towers insisted that building plans for the sites are not set in stone, but he is confident they will not be considered out-of-scale for the neighborhood. Work to demolish the existing low-rise buildings between East 79th and 80th streets is already underway and permits have been filed to demolish the buildings between East 85th and 86th streets.
One of the few contentious moments during Tuesday night's meeting came when the board's housing committee co-chair Edward Hartzog cast doubt on Barnett's claim that Extell is still drawing up plans for the sites.
"The developer doesn't come and knock down the buildings until they have plans, and they know what's coming," Hartzog said. "So, it's ok, I think you do know what's going to happen. With all the talk of you not knowing what's going on — you do know there's going to be substantial retail, you know you have schools, you've been meeting with [City Councilman] Ben Kallos. So I do think you have substantial plans."
Hartzog added that he's been at numerous meetings with developers where commitments are made to the community and then dropped.
Barnett responded to the claim by saying that Extell is moving forward with demolition to avoid the vacant buildings becoming a blight on First Avenue. The developer added that he was being "very careful" not to make any commitments at Tuesday night's meeting but was there mainly to solicit feedback.
"I am telling you once again, and people know me not to be a liar, that we do not have plans yet contrary to what you think. It's not standard practice necessarily to keep vacant buildings that are deteriorating in a neighborhood," Barnett said. "How would you feel if we just left those buildings laying around and did nothing? You'd be upset about it, so we're tearing them down."
There are some indications about what Extell is planning for its East 79th to 80th street site, but none have been made for the East 85th to 86th street site.
In March 2018, Barnett told real estate publication The Real Deal that he plans to develop a mixed-use building with at least 250,000 square feet of buildable space on First Avenue between East 79th and 80th streets. The development may also include a school.
Barnett said Tuesday that both buildings will be mixed-use and contain a residential component made up of condos and a retail component. The developer said he is in talks to potentially construct a new school at one or both of the developments, but did not say whether it would be a public school or a private school.
Extell will likely pursue the 421A tax abatement if one of the buildings has rental units, which would require a portion of the units to be offered at below-market rates, Barnett said Tuesday.
Upper East Side residents packed Tuesday night's meeting to voice their concerns about the new buildings and to make suggestions about how Extell can be a good neighbor. The main concerns expressed were about the height of the future buildings, the architectural style, added congestion to the neighborhood and the environmental ramifications of the large scale of demolition and construction work needed at both sites.
Some suggestions made by community members included: New green space or public recreation space at the sites, space for small "mom and pop" stores, a parking garage, public art installations and space for restaurants.
Barnett said that he will consider giving "mom and pop" stores a discount on rent in the new buildings if the community favors it.
Many residents disagreed with Barnett's view that the Upper East Side is equipped to handle high-density development.
"I wish that you would come during the day and see the lines and lines of people waiting for the bus," Betty Cooper Wallerstein, who has led the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association for decades, said Tuesday.
Cooper Wallerstein added that the neighborhood is losing its distinction as a residential area and said the increase in "very, very tall buildings" is making the Upper East Side resemble Midtown Manhattan.
Barnett maintained that the two new developments will not be out-of-character with the surrounding area but did not rule out tall buildings, which he said are common on the avenues near his development sites.
"I have a difference of opinion with people saying blanket 'height is no good' — people who do that are a disservice to their cause," Barnett said. "If this was a beautiful residential neighborhood — all of the buildings were low-rise — I would agree with you. I think then a tall tower is out of context, it does disturb the flavor of the neighborhood, but in most of Manhattan you don't have that."
The developer was hesitant to provide a timeline for construction, but said he expects plans to come together for both sites in the coming months and estimated that excavation may begin in nine to 12 months at the earliest. Barnett noted there will be some time in between demolition is finished and excavation begins at the sites.
Members of Community Board 8 left Barnett with one final suggestion: use restraint.
"You've made your mark, you've done a lot of changes to the way the city looks," CB 8 chair Alida Camp said Tuesday. "Now you can be a great leader for construction on the Upper East Side and in filtering out some of the habits of the rest of the city by incorporating some of the things the community has said even if you don't have to as-of-right."