City hears arguments in UWS tower dispute

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BSA holds first hearing on efforts to block proposed tallest building on UWS


  • Work is in progress at 200 Amsterdam Avenue on a proposed 668-foot tower that would be the tallest building Upper West Side. Photo: Michael Garofalo

“If it’s wrong, and the DOB knows it’s wrong, why should this community bear the impact of their mistake?”

Sean Khorsandi, executive director of Landmark West

After a year of starts and stops, building permits and zoning challenges, renderings and rallies, the parties at odds over a controversial condominium tower under construction on the Upper West Side finally aired their arguments in an official city setting last week.

Supporters and opponents of the planned 668-foot building at 200 Amsterdam Avenue gathered March 27 for a marathon hearing at the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals that attracted a crowd of dozens, who filled the hearing room to capacity and spilled into the halls.

A local group’s appeal to have the project’s building permit revoked was the subject of three hours of testimony from lawyers, city officials, local politicians, zoning experts, trade groups and residents of nearby buildings. The appeal will continue with a second hearing in two months.

If completed as planned, the 55-story residential tower, located on Amsterdam Avenue near West 69th Street at the former site of Lincoln Square Synagogue, would be the tallest on the Upper West Side, though it could soon be surpassed by a proposed condo tower on West 66th Street that would stand roughly 100 feet taller and has also attracted local opposition.

Helen Rosenthal, whose City Council district includes the site of the proposed building, spoke at the hearing in support of the appeal. “The proposal at 200 Amsterdam violates the spirit and the letter of the Zoning Resolution, and in doing so results in a development that is entirely out of scale and out of context for this neighborhood,” Rosenthal said.

The key questions at issue in the appeal, filed by a local land use advocacy group called the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, center on whether the project adheres to technical zoning requirements regarding lot formation and open space requirements.

Though the footprint of 200 Amsterdam Avenue takes up only a small portion of the superblock it shares with the Lincoln Towers housing complex, its zoning lot — which forms the basis for the project’s height — is significantly larger. The large, irregularly shaped zoning lot takes up much of the block, weaving around neighboring buildings to include paths and driveways on the block’s interior. The zoning lot, first formed in 1987, encompasses pieces of several tax lots on the block.

The Committee for Environmentally Sound Development’s appeal argues that zoning lots must consist of entire tax lots rather than partial tax lots.

The Department of Buildings disagreed with this assessment when it completed a zoning review and issued a permit for the project in last September, but reversed course in a subsequent letter last month, agreeing with the committee that the correct interpretation of the city’s Zoning Resolution does not permit zoning lots to consist of parts of tax lots.

This marked a departure from an interpretation the department had previously relied on for four decades. “This is a fairly significant change, and an important one,” said Mona Sehgal, the Department of Buildings’ general counsel.

In spite of its new interpretation, the Department of Buildings argues that it should not result in revoking the permit already issued for the 200 Amsterdam project, citing the fact that a new policy has not yet been officially adopted and the 1978 departmental memo outlining the old interpretation has yet to be rescinded. “This is a very difficult case, no doubt,” Sehgal said.

Paul Selver, the attorney representing SJP Properties and Mitsui Fudosan America, the project’s developers, argued that to revoke the building permit would be “arbitrary and capricious.”

“Literally all of the agencies involved in drafting and administering New York City’s zoning laws have for two generations allowed a zoning lot to include a partial tax lot,” Selver said. “And, significantly, no one has cited a single case where this treatment had led to a problem in zoning administration.”

But Frank Chaney, the attorney representing the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, said that the new interpretation must be taken into account. “It’s well settled, under New York law, that city agencies can correct their mistakes,” Chaney said.

In addition to Rosenthal, representatives of several local elected officials including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Comptroller Scott Stringer, the Municipal Arts Society, Landmark West and others spoke in support of the appeal.

“If it’s wrong, and the DOB knows it’s wrong, why should this community bear the impact of their mistake?” asked Sean Khorsandi, executive director of Landmark West.

Among those who testified against the appeal were representatives of several labor unions, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Board of New York.

The Board of Standards and Appeals, which is the city agency responsible for ruling on appeals of zoning determinations, has scheduled a follow-up hearing on the matter for June 5. Work is in progress at 200 Amsterdam and can continue under the existing building permit while the appeal is pending. After the appeal is decided, the losing party could choose to bring the case to court.

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