A newly released rendering (left) shows plans for a 775-foot tower on West 66th Street. Extell Development previously secured approvals for a more modest 25-story building at the site (right) before changing course, prompting Council Member Helen Rosenthal to call the move a “procedural bait-and-switch.” (Left: Sn°hetta; Right: DOB notice at worksite)
Mid-block on West 66th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, work has been under way for months to clear a series of adjacent lots that formerly held a synagogue and several other small buildings and prepare the site for a new project. Plans posted on the construction fence indicate that the structure in the works is a relatively unremarkable 25-story building with a nondescript glass fašade — little to raise any eyebrows in an area that already has a number of buildings similar in size and style.
But newly released renderings show that those plans have changed — just as local officials and land use advocates had long suspected would come to pass. The site’s developer now has much grander plans for the site: a 775-foot residential tower that would be the tallest building on the Upper West Side and the tallest building in Manhattan north of 59th Street.
The tower, marketed by Extell Development under the moniker 50 West 66th Street and as featuring 127 units of luxury housing, would top the 668-foot residential complex being built at nearby 200 Amsterdam Avenue by just over 100 feet. Extell had previously secured excavation permits from the Department of Buildings for the more modest 25-story, 292-foot-tall building still featured in renderings posted at the site.
“They had no intention of completing a 25-story building, obviously,” said Helen Rosenthal, the City Council member who represents the area. Rosenthal said that Extell’s change in plans amounts to a “procedural bait-and-switch.”
The site had already been on the radar of Rosenthal and other local leaders, who suspected that, despite that 25-story plans, a much larger building was in development. Last June, Rosenthal, state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Dick Gottfried sent a letter to Extell’s president, Gary Barnett, requesting that the developer “clearly explain to the neighborhood its plans for the site.” The letter further stated that “neither neighbors nor our offices have ever had reason to feel confident that the building plans on record truly reflect the developer’s plans.”
Officials’ concerns were based on the pattern of acquisition of parcels on the block — which now include air rights from the former Lighthouse Guild site on West 65th Street — and reports from real estate industry trade publications, along with Extell’s portfolio of supertall projects, which includes the 57th Street residential skyscrapers One57 and the in-progress Central Park Tower, which will be the second-tallest building in the United States when it’s finished.
“Gary [Barnett] is in the business of building big buildings,” said Sean Khorsandi, executive director of the land use and preservation nonprofit Landmark West. “That’s just what he does. So we assumed that this would be a big building.”
The buildings that formerly stood on the West 66th Street site were cleared under the permits issued for the 25-story building. Rosenthal has called on the Department of Buildings to force Extell to “return to square one” and “not allow Extell to make an end-run around its review process.”
“My concern is that [Barnett] is slowing down our ability to know what he’s doing and then respond appropriately, and it’s not fair to his neighbors or our community,” Rosenthal said. Extell disputes the characterization of the plan as a “bait-and-switch,” and claims that plans for the building evolved over time as the site was assembled and air rights were acquired. “We respectfully disagree with Council Member Rosenthal’s perception of the project and the process,” an Extell spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
“We have carefully and patiently assembled this site over several years including the Lighthouse site just two weeks ago and some air rights that enabled us to develop this 100 percent as-of-right building,” the statement continued.
Aside from her procedural concerns, Rosenthal said she does not believe that the zoning code allows for a building of such substantial height at the location. “Our land use lawyers don’t see a route to a 775-foot tower, according to the zoning law,” Rosenthal said.
Landmark West reached a similar conclusion. “From what we understand of what’s been assembled, we don’t see how a 775-foot building is legal,” Khorsandi said.
But the details of Extell’s zoning analysis are not yet available, and won’t be made public until the developer has filed and received approvals for updated plans from the Department of Buildings. “We still don’t know the meaningful information about this building, which is the zoning justification for their height that they’re proposing in their rendering,” Rosenthal said.
“They must have a justification, and that’s what they’re being secretive about,” she added. “That’s what’s worrying.”
Rosenthal also has concerns about the project’s lack of affordable housing. “When we talk about bringing more supply into the housing market to help address demand, we’re not talking about $5 million-plus condos,” she said. “That doesn’t address the needs of the middle class on the Upper West Side.”
Sn°hetta, the architecture firm responsible for the tower’s design, wrote in a release that “the building will join the neighborhood, sensitively responding to its context and referencing the area’s architectural character with a natural palette of refined materials.”
But while the building is similar in scale to the Time Warner Center and the Trump International Hotel and Tower several blocks south on Columbus Circle, it would represent a new high for the Upper West Side, and some fear it would be a harbinger of more towers to come.
“Our concern is that this represents the creep of Billionaire’s Row and the sprawl of these supertalls from Midtown into the residential neighborhood of the Upper West Side,” Khorsandi said.