UESers Debate How to Curb Mushrooming Supertalls

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

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Upper East Siders are debating how tall they want buildings to rise in their neighborhood. A discussion on height limits was the focus of a land use forum hosted June 6 by Civitas, a non-profit that advocates on neighborhood quality of life issues on the East Side.

Though some at the meeting advocated for no height cap, Civitas presented a zoning proposal that would cap building heights at 400 feet, while Community Board 8 reiterated its position that the cap should stand at 210 feet. At the crux of last week’s discussion were tough questions about the affordable housing crisis in New York City.

“I thought that those positions clearly resonated with various members of the audience,” Mark Alexander, president of Civitas and principal of Alexander Development Group, said referring to the discussion about some height limit being needed on the Upper East Side. “There clearly is a significant majority — at least in the crowd  — of people wanting some kind of height limit.”

Civitas released a zoning recommendation plan for areas along York Ave., First Ave., Second Ave., and Third Ave. between the 60s and the 90s that are currently zoned C1-9, which specifies no height constraint. Based on a report by Frank Fish of Buckhurst Fish Jacquemart Planning, Civitas recommends that the city rezone that C1-9 zone into C1-9X, which would cap height limits at 400 feet and the street wall setback at 60 to 85 feet. The proposal, Civitas hopes, would allow for more development and increased density, but preserve the neighborhood’s traditional context. A 400-foot building, which would likely be between 30 and 40 stories, is still much smaller than the often criticized “supertalls” — buildings rising to more than 1,000 feet that are popping up citywide.

Alexander, who moderated the discussion last Wed., aimed to emphasize that the varying proposals on what’s to be done on overdevelopment on the Upper East Side and citywide involve complex choices and trade-offs depending on what route neighborhoods and their elected officials take.

“You’re going to end up with trade-offs, and one of those trade-offs is affordability,” he said.

Panel members Moses Gates, the Regional Planning Association’s vice president for housing and neighborhood planning, and Michael Slattery, the Real Estate Board of New York’s senior vice president of research, generally agreed that more density and new apartments are necessary to mitigate the affordability crisis citywide — and, specific to this forum, on the Upper East Side. Gates argued that although public infrastructure — sanitation, schools, public transit, and so on — must increase alongside development of taller, denser buildings, that argument isn’t as salient for a neighborhood that has famously received a great deal of public infrastructure in comparison with the rest of the city.

“There’s kind of a consensus that with more people needs to come more of this public infrastructure,” Gates said. “I would say, and perhaps this is controversial to folks who might live here, but I would say the Upper East Side has received more than its fair share of the recent public infrastructure investment in New York.”

He added, “We have built four subways stations in the last 50 years and you’ve got them all. So I would say you have one of the best parks in the entire United States [Central Park] right at your door, with a very generous conservancy that supports it, and you have some of the best schools in the city.”

But for some residents, particularly those on Community Board 8, the view is that their neighborhood is being threatened and more development could displace people who have been able to afford to live in the area for decades. Last Sept., CB 8 voiced its support to the Department of City Planning for a 210-foot height cap on York Ave., First Ave., Second Ave., and Third Ave. within the board’s district.

“Nobody wants to live in shadows all the time,” said Alida Camp, chairperson of the board since Jan. and a member for three years. Camp was also a panelist.

“We’re concerned about affordable housing,” she said. “These buildings cause the loss of subsidized rent-controlled apartments in the walk-ups they’re replacing.”

A 210-foot height cap, Camp said, “just makes more sense for the scale of the neighborhood.”

The support for increased density at the forum surprised Camp, who sees the area’s streets, public transit, and schools already overcrowded.

“It was somewhat disconcerting,” she said. “We would like the community to have more of a voice in these kinds of decisions.”

Much of the development across the city is as-of-right, which allows new construction to proceed without signficant oversight and review from the public.

When asked whether increased density could remedy the widespread feeling that New York is becoming increasingly unaffordable, Camp questioned how much affordable housing is allotted in new buildings to begin with. She referred specifically to 1297 Third Ave., a development in the works between E. 74th and 75th Sts. that was originally supposed to be a 31-story condo. When the developers came before the board, Camp said, they didn’t have a plan for any affordable units. Since then, the developers appear to have scrapped that plan. The new plan is expected to be a six-story building with just three units, the Real Deal reported in March.

Another recent development in the works is at 180 East 88th St. DDG’s soon-to-be luxury condo building on Third Ave. will rise to 50 stories, according to a company press release last month. Community groups and elected officials, including City Councilmember Ben Kallos, sued the developers in Feb. for suspect zoning practices, reported Crain’s.

“One of the things I’m most interested in is closing the loopholes that let this happen,” Kallos said at last week’s forum, referring in general terms to problematic development on the Upper East Side. It’s hard for him to believe, he said, that the zoning text can lead to preservation of neighborhoods when loopholes — such as the purchase of developmental rights known as air rights and the use of mechanical voids in buildings that reduce floor space and so allow for taller buildings — are exploited.

“I’m wondering if we can’t get more aggressive on our affordable housing and to do better and bring it all over the city,” added Kallos, who did not say whether or not he would support some kind of height cap on the neighborhood’s avenues.

“There’s a problem when you have billionaires replacing millionaires,” he added, referring to an Upper East Side phenomenon of recent years.

Alexander of Civitas was surprised at the number of people in the audience who supported no height caps. A group known as Open New York, which advocates for more development of both affordable and market rate housing and aligns itself with newer YIMBY — Yes In My Back Yard — groups, opposed any height cap in the neighborhood.

“I was actually surprised. In some ways, pleasantly surprised,” said Alexander, whose group is cognizant that any solution must preserve incentives for more housing development on the Upper East Side.

Open New York has about 15 active members who frequently go to community meetings, according to one member, Alex Walker.

“Our approach to housing issues is that we just think the region needs to build a lot more housing in general,” said Walker, who lives on Madison Ave. and 28th St. “Both dedicated affordable housing and more market rate housing. And we think that will benefit people all along the income spectrum.”

Neighborhoods across the city, notably the West Village, have shown that resisting new development hasn’t improved affordability whatsoever, Walker argued.

The group officially became a not-for-profit organization recently, and leadership roles will be decided upon at an upcoming meeting, according to Walker.

“Our focus is really on neighborhoods that we think have been too successful at sort of resisting growth for selfish reasons of the people who live there,” Walker said, adding that new housing would accommodate population growth and newcomers in general.

But Walker joined others in the audience who questioned the use of mechanical voids that allow luxury apartments to surge high into the sky.

“To be frank, that seems like kind of a wasteful use of space,” he said.

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