Another tower tussle brewing on UWS

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Zoning challenge filed against West 66th Street condo development that would be Upper West Side’s tallest


  • A rendering (left) shows plans for a 775-foot residential tower on West 66th Street. Extell Development previously secured approvals for a more modest 25-story development at the site (right) before filing plans for the taller building, prompting Council Member Helen Rosenthal to call the move a “procedural bait-and-switch.” Images: (Left) Snøhetta; (Right) DOB notice at worksite

  • One aspect of the zoning challenge against Extell’s proposed midblock condo tower on West 66th Street focuses on a 161-foot mechanical void that would start at the building’s 18th floor, shown in gray in this rendering. According to the zoning challenge, “it appears that the primary use of the floor is to increase the height of the tower floors above it.” Image: George M. Janes & Associates

“This development is in a residential neighborhood, not Billionaire’s Row.”

Sean Khorsandi, executive director of Landmark West

By Michael Garofalo

Two months after opponents of the controversial residential tower under construction at 200 Amsterdam Ave. lost a crucial appeal in their bid to block the project, Upper West Siders are gearing up for another fight against an even taller condo tower just a few blocks away.

A zoning challenge backed by a coalition of neighborhood residents, politicians and preservationists asserts that Extell Development’s proposed building at 36 Wests 66th St. does not adhere to city zoning regulations and should not have been approved by the Department of Buildings. Rising 775 feet on a midblock lot between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, the tower would be the tallest in Manhattan north of 59th Street.

The Extell tower is the latest in a series of Manhattan projects that have drawn the ire of land use advocates. Developers, with DOB approval, have in recent years increasingly relied on permissive interpretations of zoning regulations (often characterized by opponents as “loopholes”) to build ever-higher luxury residential buildings — with commensurately high asking prices — that critics say often do not align with the scale or architectural context of their surroundings.

The zoning challenge, prepared by planning consultant George M. Janes, raises a number of objections to Extell’s plans, which include an “atypically large mechanical void” in the middle of tower that accounts for 161 feet of the building’s height.

Areas used for mechanical equipment do not count toward floor area totals that govern permissible height. According to Janes and other zoning experts, developers now often use excessively large mechanical voids to artificially increase building heights — in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of city zoning codes.

According to opponents of the Extell tower, the building’s void is not proportionate with its actual mechanical purpose. “While there may be some mechanical equipment placed on the floor of this space, it appears that the primary use of the floor is to increase the height of the tower floors above it,” the challenge states. The challenge also claims that the large void may pose safety issues in the event of a fire, citing concerns previously raised by the FDNY about another building with a large mechanical space.

Extell’s plans for the development, which sits within the Special Lincoln Square District, rely on an interpretation of the zoning resolution that if adopted widely would effectively “neuter” the tower-on-a-base regulations that limit the practical height of buildings in the district to roughly 300 feet, Janes said.

The zoning challenge was filed by the local land use and preservation nonprofit Landmark West! and residents of a neighboring co-op building at 10 West 66th St. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, state Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried support the challenge.

At a Sept. 13 meeting at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Rosenthal said that Extell’s proposal relies on a zoning interpretation “that is the opposite of what was intended when this community adopted the Special Lincoln Square District.”

“It takes advantage of existing loopholes, and the developer is doing his best to create some new loopholes,” Rosenthal said. “It bends and it breaks these rules in service of an ultra-luxury tall tower that does not serve any public policy good. In the middle of a housing crisis, this project would include just 127 apartments and stand 775 feet tall.”

Rosenthal has also criticized Extell for engaging in what she termed “a procedural bait-and-switch” in filing its plans for the property. In December 2015, the developer filed for permits from the DOB to build a much smaller building at the site; at 292 feet, the proposed development would have been similar in size to neighboring buildings. Extell began clearing the site under the old permit, while Rosenthal and others called on the developer to address rumors that a larger-scale project was in development. Their suspicions were confirmed when Extell filed new plans for the 775-foot tower in late 2017.

“What this has done is allow them to move the building forward for 18 months and put the community opposition on its heels,” Janes said. While filing fake plans isn’t illegal, he added, “It doesn’t seem right.”

Extell Development did not respond to a request for comment. The Department of Buildings will likely issue its decision on the zoning challenge by late November at the earliest. Subsequent appeals may be made to the Board of Standards and Appeals. Construction can continue while the case is under review.

The dispute takes place within the context of a broader debate over the permissiveness of city zoning laws, as similar controversies have erupted over towers under construction at 200 Amsterdam Avenue, 180 East 88th St. and 430 East 58th St., near Sutton Place, each the subject of pending litigation.

Rosenthal, Brewer and other elected officials have called for an update to zoning rules to limit mechanical voids and other perceived loopholes, such as excessive floor-to-ceiling heights. The Department of City Planning is expected to soon take action to address excessive mechanical voids, but any change would in all likelihood not affect Extell’s West 66th Street project.

Preservationists are concerned that the Extell development, along with the 200 Amsterdam tower and another potential large-scale project at the American Broadcasting Company headquarters on West 66th Street recently acquired by Silverstein Properties, is indicative of a growing trend of Midtown-scale towers creeping northward into the traditionally lower-slung Upper West Side.

“This development is in a residential neighborhood, not Billionaire’s Row,” said Sean Khorsandi, the executive director of Landmark West!

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