By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Many WestView readers have commented on the Clarkson Towers project as being much too big, and impossibly tall, when all other developments along West Street have been limited to 16 to 18 stories. Is there any way to contest this intrusion?
On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, something similar occurred when the 51-story 200 Amsterdam Avenue project was revealed in 2016. Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal noticed the extraordinary height and Borough President Gale Brewer supported her concern, and they spoke up about it. What happened next is a lesson for us all.
Parsippany, NJ-based developers SJP Properties and Japanese investment company Mitsui Fudosan America bought the 200 Amsterdam lot in October, 2015, and officially unveiled the Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects plans for a tower in June, 2016. The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) approved permits in September, 2016 based on a zoning lot of over 100,000 square feet, achieved by purchasing the development rights from the superblock’s parking lots and partial tax lots at the neighboring Lincoln Towers.
In May, 2017 two citizens’ groups, the Municipal Art Society of New York and the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, initiated an Article 78 proceeding to revoke the permits. In July, 2018 DOB’s determination was upheld by the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) following a period of document review and testimony. Could this problem have been avoided if the developers hired experts on NYC zoning and code—namely, NYC architects?
The BSA finding should have been the end of the approval process, but on February 13th, 2020 New York State Supreme Court Justice W. Franc Perry ruled in favor of invalidating the building’s lot zoning and ordering the owners of 200 Amsterdam to remove approximately 20 floors from the 668-foot tower to bring it into compliance with the court’s interpretation of the Zoning Resolution.
In the ongoing battle, on March 3rd, 2020 the New York City Law Department, plus the developers separately, challenged the judge’s ruling, stating it is improper to reinterpret “zoning that has been approved and consistently upheld by the Department of Buildings and Board of Standards and Appeals.” The DOB permit was supported by historic interpretation of zoning laws allowing zoning lots to be composed of partial tax lots, which the BSA affirmed. Twenty other buildings around the city have been built using partial tax lots, such as 200 West End Avenue, 160 Amsterdam Avenue, and 180 Amsterdam Avenue (built right next to 200 Amsterdam on the gerrymandered lot).
Work is continuing on the Upper West Side building, where a number of units are in contract for purchase. The court ruling adds unnecessary uncertainty and risk in the industry, threatening already constructed, and perhaps even occupied, buildings. Based on case-proven precedent, even NYC architects and developers probably would have made the same decisions.
Buildings far taller than 12 stories have been razed without incident, but that is not the issue; it is how the approval process is followed.
In the only local example of demolishing extra floors, on April 23, 1991, five years after its completion in July 1986, Albert and Laurence Ginsberg, father and son developers, agreed to raze the top 12 floors off an apartment tower at 108 East 96th Street, near Park Avenue, that was built too tall for zoning rules. This dramatic outcome brought the unoccupied structure into compliance with the law; the DOB had granted architects Schuman, Lichtenstein, Claman & Efron (SLCE) a permit for the work, fooled by an ambiguous zoning map. Mayor David N. Dinkins, a neighborhood group called Civitas, and the developer settled on the 31-story shell being cut down to 19 stories, paving the way for its eventual occupancy. Five years of paying for an empty shell plus the cost of demolition would be enough to bankrupt any lesser mortals and businesses.
In related news this year, a challenge to Extell’s proposed 775-foot apartment tower at 50 West 66th Street was rejected by the BSA, upholding the DOB’s permits for the future tallest tower on the Upper West Side. However, the architect firm Snohetta reduced the mechanical spaces on four separate floors, none larger than 64 feet tall. The DOB and fire department requested the changes from the original plan that had a 180-feet tall mechanical space. A month after the city signed off on Extell’s plans, the city council closed a loophole; any utility floor taller than 25 feet will now count toward the building’s zoning floor area.
“The developers of 200 Amsterdam took advantage of a decades-old zoning interpretation to create a gerrymandered 39-sided zoning lot in order to construct a luxury building that is one of the tallest on the Upper West Side. We are closing this loophole so that developers will no longer be able to cobble together partial tax lots for new buildings,” City of New York Deputy Press Secretary Jane Meyer said in an email.
Who will pay for closing this loophole? Both the developer and the civic groups have already paid dearly.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, is co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, and is a journalist who writes about architecture.
You just finished reading a story from WestView News.
We need YOU to help WestView survive.
Please consider donating to keep our shoestring operation alive so we continue to bring essential news to West Village residents.
PLEASE DONATE! or SUBSCRIBE.