200 Amsterdam heads to court

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Opponents of residential tower file legal challenge in effort to block project


  • Opponents of the 200 Amsterdam Avenue development rallied in front of the construction site on Oct. 12. Photo: Municipal Art Society of New York

  • A rendering shows the so-called “gerrymandered” zoning lot used to justify the tower’s 668-foot height. Rendering: Municipal Art Society of New York

By Michael Garofalo

More than two years after developer SJP properties first filed plans for its 55-story condominium tower at 200 Amsterdam Avenue — setting off opposition from neighbors and activists, who launched a lengthy but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to halt the project through the city’ zoning challenge and appeals process — two local groups are turning to the courts in their effort to block the controversial building. Construction is now underway on the planned 668-foot tall tower.

The Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, a local volunteer advocacy group, and the Municipal Art Society of New York, a prominent preservation and land use advocacy nonprofit, jointly filed a legal challenge to block the project in the state Supreme Court on Oct. 9.

The Department of Buildings issued a building permit for the development in September 2017; the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals subsequently upheld the DOB’s determination in a July 2018 decision. The groups’ lawsuit requests that the court vacate the BSA’s decision and order the DOB to revoke the permit.

The challenge focuses on 200 Amsterdam’s large and irregularly shaped zoning lot, from which the building derives its exceptional height. The zoning lot, which critics have likened to a gerrymandered political district, snakes its way across much of the block, encompassing parts of several tax lots. The plaintiffs argue that the 200 Amsterdam zoning lot violates the zoning resolution because it contains partial tax lots; a zoning lot, they argue, must consist of entire tax lots.

“The zoning lot at 200 Amsterdam is an affront to both the letter and spirit of the Zoning Resolution, and defies common sense,” Elizabeth Goldstein, the president of the Municipal Art Society, said in a statement. “By refusing to revoke this illegal permit, BSA and DOB risk setting a dangerous precedent that will affect neighborhoods across the city.”

The 200 Amsterdam case has coincided with a several other zoning controversies over luxury housing developments, including disputed towers on West 66th Street and East 88th Street, in which critics claim developers have utilized zoning “loopholes” to build taller than the authors of the city’s 1961 zoning resolution ever envisioned. Public response to the developments has sparked broader debate over the permissiveness of city zoning regulations.

Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side in the City Council, has called for fundamental reform of city land use and zoning rules. “Over the last two years I have worked very hard to challenge developments like 200 Amsterdam through the existing framework established by the city’s Zoning Resolution,” Rosenthal said in a statement. “And the painful truth is that that framework is currently incapable of addressing the core problem that the Upper West Side and so many other communities in our city are having. Communities are being bombarded by projects that are supposedly ‘as of right,’ but they are often drastically out of context, do not actually comply with the spirit of special district and other local protections, and are not helping to address our affordable housing crisis.”

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