UWS takes aim at supertall towers

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Community Board 7 signals support for reforms intended to rein in building heights


  • Community Board 7 voted in support of a resolution addressing building heights at its March meeting. A planned 775-foot condo tower on West 66th Street would be the tallest building on the Upper West Side. Image: Snøhetta

“We need to have input on what's happening in our communities.”

Community Board 7 Chair Roberta Semer

Amid neighborhood concerns that two looming high-rise development projects in the West 60s could signal the imminent creep of Midtown skyscrapers into the Upper West Side, Community Board 7 took steps last week to address the spread of so-called supertall towers.

The community board voted at its March 6 meeting in favor of a resolution calling on the city to close perceived loopholes with respect to building heights in the city's zoning code.

The resolution cites several tactics for increasing building heights that developers have utilized with increasing frequency in recent years as technological advances have reduced the costs of supertall construction and the city's booming luxury housing market has incentivized developers to build higher.

One such tactic addressed in the resolution is the practice of building higher-than-standard ceilings on each floor to raise a tower's overall height.

The resolution also mentions mechanical spaces and voids, which appear perhaps most famously in 432 Park Avenue, the Midtown condo development that features empty two-story gaps at regular intervals up the nearly 1,400-foot-tall tower. Because mechanical voids do not count toward a building's floor area, which helps determine allowable height, critics say the spaces can be strategically used by developers solely for the purpose of raising the height and value of buildings' upper floors. Community Board 7's resolution urges the City Planning Commission to begin the process of addressing these and other issues in the city' zoning resolution.

“While it could be argued that increasing the available housing stock with new apartment construction generally provides a benefit, these artificial mechanisms used to increase building height, employed solely to may [sic] make the residences in the building more attractive to potential high-end buyers, do not add to the housing stock,” the resolution states. “People do not reside in voids or oversized mechanical spaces. 20-foot floor-to-ceiling heights do not translate to higher occupancy; rather they just waste energy derived from non-renewable resources.”

The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled it would move to reform the use of voids at a January 2018 town hall meeting hosted by the mayor on the Upper East Side. “We agree that the notion that there are empty spaces for the sole purpose of making the building taller for the views at the top is not what was intended, and so we are already working under the mayor's direction with the Department of Buildings to see how we can make sure that the intent of the rules is followed,” said Marisa Lago, chair of the City Planning Commission.

Several Manhattan community boards, which hold an advisory role in land use and zoning issues, have made recommendations regarding tall buildings in recent years. Community Board 8 last year voted in support of a height cap of 210 feet on new buildings on York, First, Second and Third Avenues. And in 2015, Community Board 5 called for a moratorium on new Midtown buildings exceeding 600 feet in height, particularly those that would cast shadows on Central Park.

Roberta Semer, the chair of Community Board 7, said that last week's resolution would be brought to the Manhattan Borough Board, where overdevelopment has been a topic of continuing discussion. “We need to have input on what's happening in our communities,” Semer said.

The community board's move takes place against the backdrop of two luxury condo towers currently under development at 200 Amsterdam Avenue and 50 West 66th Street that critics have argued do not align with the scale or context of the surrounding neighborhood. Slated to rise 668 and 775 feet, respectively, each tower would eclipse the height of any existing building on the Upper West Side.

Both projects have been the target of criticism from elected officials and local land use groups, and 200 Amsterdam is the subject of a pending zoning appeal arguing that the site's building permit should be revoked.

The city's Board of Standards and Appeals will hold a public hearing on the 200 Amsterdam appeal on March 27. In advance of the hearing, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Helen Rosenthal will hold a meeting at Rutgers Presbyterian Church March 19 at 7 p.m. to discuss the legal and zoning issues relevant to the case.

In addition to the resolution, Community Board 7 voted to send a letter to the Board of Standards and Appeals regarding the 200 Amsterdam appeal that refers to the proposed tower as “inappropriate” and “grossly out of context with the surrounding neighborhood,” and calls on the board to “spare the community this grotesque and ill-advised building.”

Olive Freud, the president of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, which has led efforts to block the 200 Amsterdam Development, said at the community board meeting that she is “grateful” for the resolution. “You really hit all the points,” she said.

This story has been updated to reflect the correct location of the March 19 meeting hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Helen Rosenthal.

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