Battle Against Supertalls Hits W. 66th St.

A rendering of the proposed 775-foot Extell Development tower on W. 66th St. set against Central Park. | Rendering courtesy of George Janes

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | An Upper West Side block association is revving up the fight against a proposed tower at 50 W. 66th St., and in the process, it scored a meeting held last Tuesday with the Department of City Planning to talk about zoning loopholes the group says are spawning inappropriately tall buildings north of Midtown.

Extell Development Company is proposing that the tower, originally expected to rise 25 stories, top out at 775 feet. Following a pattern emerging across Manhattan, Extell’s building is designed to have a tall mechanical void space, which will allow it to reach that height in only 40 stories.

Void spaces, typically seen as “excessive” to opponents of new tall towers, allow developers to build higher while still meeting a neighborhood’s floor area ratio zoning requirment that limits a building’s total floor space relative to the lot it sits on. The taller the building, the better the views for top-dollar luxury apartments, in this case looming over Central Park.

“It’s become quite controversial lately,” said Chris Giordano, the president of the 65th and 66th Streets Block Association, the group that met with City Planning last week.

Other loopholes that community groups and elected officials have slammed in recent months are gerrymandered zoning lots that increase the allowable building height and higher floor-to-floor heights, which also increase a building’s allowable height. These loopholes, coupled with dramatically improved building technology, allow developers to build taller, which has created what opponents are calling the “Midtown creep,” casting shadows on Central Park and bringing tall towers into the Upper West and Upper East Sides.

After months of asking for a meeting, Giordano’s group finally got the chance to lay out its concerns to City Planning about the void loophole and other zoning law quirks that many neighborhood groups want the city to halt.

“Our question was how does City Planning see individual community needs within the Lincoln Square Special District, and they put that conversation off for month after month after month, and we finally got a meeting with them,” he said.

Giordano argued that community activists aren’t NIMBY — Not In My Backyard — explaining, instead, “We thrive on the entrepreneurial spirit of innovation for New York, but we also want to control our own destiny.”

He argued that the Lincoln Square Special District zoning parameters should prevent towers such as the Extell development proposed just around the corner from his apartment building. He can see the lot where foundation work has already begun from his kitchen window.

“We feel like the special district established parameters give a lot of background on that,” he said. “On the human side, how do you have a 775-foot building with over 200 feet of empty space in the middle of it during an administration that’s saying we need more housing and more affordable housing for our city? But yet you allow a building to have 200 feet of empty space just for the purpose of pushing apartments up higher to have better views?”

“It seems like a contradiction,” he added.

Excavation work at the W. 66th St. site of Extell Development’s proposed new 775-foot tower as seen from Chris Giordano’s apartment kitchen. | Photo courtesy of Chris Giordano

A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning, Joe Marvilli, would not confirm whether the meeting happened nor, of course, who attended when Manhattan Express asked late last week, but said the department is looking closely at how to deal with excessive mechanical voids in the city.

The department is listening to all stakeholders and expects a proposal by the end of the year to address the issue, according to Marvilli.

In an email advisory to the 65th and 66th Streets Block Association membership, Giordano reported that the City Planning team at the meeting was led by Manhattan director Edith Hsu-Chen.

Hsu-Chen, he said, indicated that the department does not “embrace” the use of voids simply to build taller and would complete a study of their proliferation by the end of the year. She added, however, that City Planning has never regulated floor to floor heights and would not change its approach on that issue.

City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal did not attend last Tuesday’s meeting, but she said there was no need for her to be in the room. City Planning hearing the voices of residents is much more powerful, she said.

“I just think it’s terrific,” she said. “I don’t need to be there. This is good government.”

In mid-August, Borough President Gale Brewer, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and several other councilmembers including Rosenthal requested a meeting between land use staff from the Council and the borough president’s office and City Planning.

Referring to a town hall with Mayor Bill de Blasio in late June, the elected officials said they want the City Planning Commission to evaluate all of the zoning loopholes as a package — rather than taking a “piecemeal” approach, such as focusing on voids alone.

“If allowed to continue, zoning lot abuses and the construction practices enumerated above will allow developers to construct buildings that are far larger than what one would reasonably expect from a fair reading of the Zoning Resolution,” the elected officials wrote to City Planning Commission chair Marisa Lago.

The Upper West Side is expected to see another tall building at 200 Amsterdam Ave., between W. 69th and 70th Sts., after the Board of Standards and Appeals upheld Department of Buildings permits that neighbors and local elected officials blasted as faulty in late July.

That 668-foot proposed building used a zig-zag shaped lot, which community organizations called out as “gerrymandering.” The opponents are weighing whether seeking an Article 78 hearing before the New York State Supreme Court might be the next step in their effort to stop that building.

For the proposed tower at 50 W. 66th St., community groups are weighing a potential zoning challenge. The deadline to file such a challenge is Sept. 9.

“My real problem with [50 W. 66th St.] is what they’re bringing the community,” Rosenthal said. “One hundred twenty-seven apartments is not worth it to me for the light and air it will be taking away from the community.”

She described the 127 apartments as “ultra-luxury” units that “only the top .01 percent could ever afford.” Given the city’s stated policy of increasing affordable housing citywide, such a building proposal doesn’t make sense, Rosenthal said.

The building is technically as-of-right as well, so it skirts the public review process called Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, that would give the local community board and the City Council greater leverage.

For the buildings overlooking Central Park moving further and further north of Midtown, the larger question for Sean Khorsandi is who should enjoy the public benefits of Central Park.

“Who has rights to Central Park?” said Khorsandi, executive director of Landmark West. “Who has air rights to Central Park? Who owns the view? And what responsibility do these developers have to the infrastructure?”

Sometimes building developers will promise the community mitigations, such as school seats or transportation improvements, for the added nuisance of construction, the influx of new neighbors, and towers that are out of context in a neighbhood.

“We’re not here to shake someone down for a school,” Khorsandi said. “We just want someone to build responsibly, with the community in mind.”

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