By Carol Tannenhauser
Community activists and City Council lawyers are combing through hundreds of pages of decades-old legal documents, looking for problems with the zoning lot for the 668-foot building planned for 200 Amsterdam Avenue at 69th street. If they don’t find something and file a challenge with the Department of Buildings by May 15th, what will be the tallest building on the Upper West Side will continue to rise from its foundation, which is already being dug.
“They’re building!” said a woman at a meeting Wednesday night at Lincoln Square Synagogue, crowded with nearly 500 people hoping to halt the construction. Most had essentially the same questions as the woman. “Is it realistic to think we can stop them, and what can we do immediately?”
“It’s called a zoning challenge,” said George Janes, an urban planner who is working with the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and Landmark West!, both longstanding nonprofits dedicated to preserving the historic buildings, character, and environment of the UWS.
“Any person can challenge any zoning approval as long as they do it based only on an error and within 45 days of the posting of the zoning approval on the DOB’s website,” Janes said. “They have 75 days to respond. I’ve been around for awhile and I’ve never seen a zoning lot quite this complicated. It was created in 1987 and subdivided at least two times since. Complicated is actually good when you’re trying to find a problem with something. We have a window, it is in progress, and we will be filing papers on May 15th.”
Council Member Helen Rosenthal arrived at the meeting from a forum on immigrant rights too late to address the crowd, but told WSR afterward that “the City Council has land-use lawyers and they have been working on this for a month.” Referring to Olive Freud, president of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, Rosenthal said, “Olive’s done a great job of bringing this to everyone’s attention. It was really Olive who brought in the planner [Janes], who figured out how they assembled the air rights. Now that he has pulled it all together, which was hard work because it was buried, we gave it to our lawyers and they’re scrubbing through it. We’re either going to submit an attachment to their challenge or submit our own. We’re also drafting legislation that says if anyone does this kind of thing, it has to be very public information, so no one can surprise us like this again.”
Janes explained to the crowd why the surprise was possible this time. “In New York City, we have this concept of ‘as-of-right’ development,” he said. “There’s no discretionary review required. You can all be very angry about this building, but if they can show it’s legal, they can build it. The building department is obligated to give them a building permit. The question is, did they really follow all the rules when they were subdividing the zoning lot they created in 1987? If not, and we can demonstrate an error, then the lot and the project have to be reconsidered.”
“Did David beat Goliath, I ask in this synagogue, even though I’m not wearing my kippah,” said Howard Yourow, a resident of West End Avenue and 80th Street. “You don’t have to live next door to a super-tall tower for it to have an effect on you. It has an impact on the light and air in the neighborhood automatically. It has an impact on the aesthetics of the neighborhood and the quality of life. We need a new bumper sticker, ‘As of right is wrong.’”
Kate Wood, president of Landmark West! said, “When behind-the-scenes deals take place over years and years and then suddenly produce an enormous tower that seems to come out of nowhere, that is a problem. City planners and policy makers, much less we in the community, are not in the driver’s seat in shaping our future. Developers are.”
Mel Wymore was on the Board of Landmark West!, before resigning to run against Rosenthal in the September Democratic primary for the City Council seat from District 6. He is working directly with Wood and Freud, offering help from his campaign staff to get the research and information they need. At the meeting, he charged the real estate industry with “co-opting our political system completely. At this point,” he said, “the UWS has seen its share of development and the pendulum has swung too far to favor big developers. We have to take that back.”
SJP Properties, which is teaming with Mitsui Fudosan America to build 200 Amsterdam is planning to build 283,000 square feet of residential space with a 3,000-square-foot medical office on the ground floor. The building would have 112 apartments, with the average apartment measuring 2,527 square feet.
Three photos of the site as of last week, taken by Stephen Harmon.
“These apartments will undoubtedly be condos, and future buyers will have access to a slew of upscale amenities,” New York YIMBY reported. “The sub cellars will hold ‘virtual golf,’ a yoga/stretching room, a gym, pool, sauna, heated lounge, and a salt room. The first and second floors will include stroller storage, conservatory, club room, social lounge, rehearsal room, dining, kid’s room, and a ‘tween lounge.’”
“He’s taking away our air and our sun and he’s leaving us in the shadows,” said Olive Freud, “for virtual golf.”
“He” is Steven Pozycki, founder and CEO of SJP Properties. When asked how he felt about the anxiety his proposed building is causing in the neighborhood and whether any affordable housing or community give-backs are included in the plan, his response through a spokesperson was, “The building is being built in full compliance with all zoning.”