Upper West Siders Prepare to Fight ‘Grotesque’ Luxury Towers By Learning the Tricks of the Trade


Urban planner George Janes explained the rise of the supertalls at a recent meeting.

By Carol Tannenhauser

Upper West Side residents have been mobilizing to fight large apartment towers that have been sprouting up in the neighborhood, and last week they got an education in how developers are managing to build them.

An appeal to the Board of Standards and Appeals to overturn the Department of Buildings’ approval of a zoning lot for a 668’ building at 200 Amsterdam Avenue (69th Street) is headed for a public hearing on March 27th. In preparation, the Land-Use Committee of Community Board 7 held an informational meeting last week, at which George Janes, an urban planner, explained why “supertalls” are suddenly sprouting up all over the city, and how developers are able to build them so high.

Technically, neither 200 Amsterdam nor 50 West 66th Street — the other controversial project looming over the neighborhood — are “supertalls,” although they are projected to rise 668’ and 775’ respectively, making them the tallest buildings on the Upper West Side. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, to attain “supertall” status, a building must reach 984’, and even then, it’s puny compared to a “megatall,” which soars at least 1,968’ into the sky. (There are currently none in the United States.) The so-called “finger building” at 432 Park Avenue (1,396’) doesn’t reach that level, although it is the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere, and, according to Janes,“the skyline-changing building of New York City.”

Strangely enough, it is starting to fit in.

“The why of supertalls is simple,” Janes said. “It’s money; that’s it. Thanks to new engineering technologies, it is now cheaper to build tall than it ever has been. And the market is demanding height. Height is at a premium. You can sell an apartment on the 80th floor for a lot more than you can sell one on the 10th floor, even though they’re the same apartment.

“The costs are going down, the revenue is going up, and that’s why you’re seeing these supertalls,” he said. “But that doesn’t explain the how. Because in most places, zoning hasn’t changed since 1961. So, how are they getting so massive, as of right?

“The most important reason is something called ‘inter-building voids,” Janes explained. “These are things like enormous spaces for mechanicals, structural voids, patios and terraces in the middle of the building, and stilts. These voids don’t count toward floor area, which determines the allowable height of a building. They act as platforms to add extra height. These exempt spaces are getting larger and larger and they are a fundamental part of how supertalls happen.”

At 432 Park, there are 19 full floors of voids, exempt from floor area. You can see them at night as intermittent bands of light.
A second reason for the increased height of supertalls, according to Janes, is “large-to-huge floor-to-floor heights, which count the same as typical ones. If you’re 10’ floor-to- floor or 20’ floor-to-floor, it’s still the same amount of floor area.”

Finally, “aggressive interpretations of the Zoning Resolution — gerrymandered zoning lots, such as the one at 200 Amsterdam — are resulting in taller buildings,” Janes said, calling the practice “an abuse of the intent of the Zoning Resolution.”

“There has been some good news,” he added. “Last month at a town hall the Mayor acknowledged, in front of hundreds of people, that mechanical voids are a problem. Furthermore, at 200 Amsterdam, the tax lots and the zoning lots do not coincide. The Department of Buildings is considering issuing a ‘Building Bulletin’ [policy statement] saying this is illegal. The fact that they’re paying attention is heartening and suggests that something is going to happen.”

For the second half of the meeting, Janes answered questions from Community Board members and the public, many focused on what can be done to influence the Board of Standards and Appeals with regard to 200 Amsterdam.

“Come to the hearing on March 27th,” said Olive Freud, head of the nonprofit Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, which is spearheading and financing the effort to bring 200 Amsterdam down to “human scale.”

“I encourage members of the public to come out and speak,” Janes reiterated. “I look back at zoning changes in the last 25 years and virtually all of them have happened because people like you got together and said, ‘Hey! This is a problem. Change the zoning.’ They were persistent and didn’t go away.”

“I’m a bulldog,” laughed Olive Freud.

For its part, the Land Use Committee drafted a letter to the BSA, and a resolution for approval and signing by the full Community Board in advance of the March 27th hearing. The letter is excerpted below.

“We write to address, from a public policy perspective, the application before you to overturn the Department of Buildings ruling with respect to a purported zoning lot designation for 200 Amsterdam Avenue…It is beyond the mandate of CB 7 to address the technical zoning issues before you. We do wish to make you aware, however, that it is the unanimous view of our Community Board, and the sentiment of everyone who has spoken at our public sessions on the issue, that the structure proposed to be erected on the site is inappropriate, as being grossly out of context with the surrounding neighborhood.”

“The claim by the developer that this building may be built in conformity with the Zoning Resolution results solely from the tortured cobbling together of barely contiguous slivers of “open space” that no rational person could view as comprising a single “lot.” Moreover, it is our understanding that a significant portion of the “open space” claimed by the developer is, and would continue to be, unavailable to the public, but rather is designated exclusively for parking for residents of a neighboring building. We understand that DOB has drafted an opinion bearing directly on the legality of the proposed building, and we urge you to adopt the reasoning and conclusions in the opinion.

“If common sense has any place in the interpretation of our Zoning Resolution, you should reject the gerrymandering of the neighbors’ land, and spare the community this grotesque and ill-advised building.”

NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 50 comments | permalink
    1. BillyNYC says:

      What the hell happened to landmarks which we we started back in the 60s !!!
      Hello committee board number 7 wake up !!!!!!!!! Wasn’t that disaster on West 79th St. at Columbus Avenue enough !!!!

      • John Elari says:

        It’s my understanding that landmarked areas of the Upper West Side are very specific and do not cover all of it. 200 Amsterdam is out of that area.

      • Jimbo says:

        Landmarks is deliberately underfunded. Overworked and underfunded staff have no time to do the job. The board is easily replaced so they vote the party line. Basically, in my expeience, the board doesn’t care. The current Chairwoman is the worst of the worst.

    2. dannyboy says:

      “The why of supertalls is simple,” Janes said. “It’s money; that’s it. Thanks to new engineering technologies, it is now cheaper to build tall than it ever has been. And the market is demanding height. Height is at a premium. You can sell an apartment on the 80th floor for a lot more than you can sell one on the 10th floor, even though they’re the same apartment.

      “The costs are going down, the revenue is going up, and that’s why you’re seeing these supertalls,” he said.

      Trumps Towers defined our new neighborhoods. We had his influence first and are now living with the consequences.

    3. Sherman says:

      I think these new high rises are pretty cool. NYC is constantly evolving and this is what makes the city dynamic and exciting.

      People want to live here and people want to move here. If we don’t construct new buildings I guess we should stick all these people on a barge in the Hudson.

      Perhaps the folks who find these tall buildings “grotesque” should move to a city like Toledo, OH where they won’t have to worry about tall buildings being constructed – or, better yet, give up their rent-controlled apartments and let someone new move in.

      • dannyboy says:

        “…should move to a city like Toledo, OH where they won’t have to worry about tall buildings being constructed – or, better yet, give up their rent-controlled apartments and let someone new move in.”

        Sherman, you continue to blame your lack of housing on others. But it is rather a personal failure on your part, and that needs to be accepted for you to progress.

        Then you can move on and make something of yourself by working and getting what you need by your own agency.

        As long as you continue to blame others for your lack, you will never have the agency to act on your own behalf.

        Good luck!

        • Sherman says:

          @ dannyboy

          I live in a beautiful apartment in a beautiful building.

          Furthermore, I paid for my apartment on my own dime.

          Unlike certain people on this thread I don’t live on entitlements and I don’t lash out as “greedy” at the people providing these entitlements.

          • dannyboy says:

            What! All that drama about how people with rent regulated apartments should get out to make room for others (“better yet, give up their rent-controlled apartments and let someone new move in”), and all that talk about how so many undeserved entitlements… and you live in “a beautiful apartment in a beautiful building”!

            You made it sound like you deserve better, so I figured you were hurting. Now that’s Entitlement!
            So quit bellyaching about what others have.

      • BillyNYC says:

        “YOU” think these new high rises are pretty cool. LOL – Than go move to the East side!!!

      • John Elari says:

        I got a better idea, Sherman, why don’t you go back to Toledo, where it appears you’re from. Think about the ramifications of these towers beginning with the thousands more on the nearby W72 subway platform every day, increased traffic, increased exhaust from their cars, and above all the blocked-out light upon our streets from such a tall tower. If 200 Amsterdam goes up to its full height it will cast a huge shadow over Central Park ever day at sunset when it sets in the west. I don’t know about you but I don’t need less light in my beloved Park, but more. How about you? Besides, there’s something in this city called Real Estate Greed — or “I want to make a lot of money, fuck everyone else.”

        • Josh P. says:

          Hi. The Upper West Side is one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the country. People who live here can walk to more of the places they need to be, reducing car trips and all the related pollution. When you block housing here, the people who would have lived here don’t just disappear. You’re displacing people into sprawling, car dependent exurbs and massively increasing pollution.
          People seem to think that out of sight is out of mind. *Blocking housing doesn’t make those people disappear. They WILL be housed somewhere.* Blocking housing in walkable neighborhoods like the UWS is just about the worst thing you can do if you care about reducing carbon and adddressing climate change.
          Think globally. Build locally.

        • Jen says:

          Sherman embraces and welcomes real estate greed. He doesn’t care about light and air, apparently people of NYC don’t need it. As long as he gets his buck, he is cool with lack of air and light. He is the real victim here – there are a handful of rent-stabilized tenants around and that keeps him awake at night. Overcrowded subway, garbage in the sidewalks are all non-issues to him as long as all 15 rent-stabilized tenants in his area are evicted.

          • Sherman says:

            @ Jen –

            You’re the last person who should lecture anybody about “greed”!

            Sherm

            • dannyboy says:

              “Sherm”,

              It is clear that you, and not Jen, are the greedy one. Your one-note harping on “entitlements” and what they have denied you, is unbearable whining. It is also incorrect, as none of these are “entitlements”. It’s in fact ass-backward, as it is YOU WHO FEEL ENTITLED! Entitled to someone else’s apartment because they bought at an insider price, which you did not; or entitled to someone else’s apartment because that person’s lease is governed by regulation laws.

              Apparently none of this whining, attacks, and misrepresentation has resulted in getting you a better apartment.

              How about dropping your entitled, whining and being nasty to those who have managed their living space, and instead make something of yourself.

              That will be more productive for you.

      • Christine Campbell says:

        I don’t know, Sherman. The problem that I see with the SuperTalls aside for the ‘sore thumb’ aspect is that they do not contribute to the neighborhood at all. They are so expensive to buy into that they end up being bought by foreign nationals looking to shelter money. They end up being largely vacant most of the time like vertical ghost towns. I am all for urban renewal, but it should contribute to a neighborhood, not detract.

      • yourneighbor says:

        Plenty of crappy architecture on the UWS. I’m happy to see these new buildings being built in my neighborhood – even better to see the new architecture mixing in with the old.

        No matter how much NIMBYs resent it, NYC is a constantly evolving city and most people like it that way.

    4. Bill Dem Tall says:

      Re: “….large apartment towers that have been sprouting up in the neighborhood,….”

      YUP, them towers just been sprouting up! Must be all the rain we’ve been having, right?

      Certainly has nothing to do with all the behind the scenes person-months spent on researching, planning, negotiating, etc. etc. by the developers and their staffs who are gambling that, several years down-the-road they may…repeat MAY get a return on their investment of time and money.

      And here come the local NIMBYs, with NOTHING INVESTED EXCEPT SOME HOT AIR, vowing to spread weed-killer on all the new growth and keep everything just-the-way-it-was-for-their grandparents.

      • dannyboy says:

        Bill Dem Tall,

        It is obvious that you admire the behind the scenes spent by the developers…

        but why exactly do you want to shut down the findings of our Community Board, and the sentiment of everyone who has spoken at our public sessions.

        Is it your preference for secret, behind-the scenes business over public representation?

        Do you want the people to just shut up?

        What is it Bill Dem Tall?

        • Bill Dem Tall says:

          Re #1: “Is it your preference for secret, behind-the scenes business over public representation?”
          YUP!

          Re #2: “Do you want the people to just shut up?”
          OMG, YUP-YUP-YUP!!!

          sincerely,
          B.D.T.

          • dannyboy says:

            So do you self-identify as an oppressor or as fascist?

            I’m trying to better understand the principles that support ‘building them tall”.

            • leon says:

              I find it ironic that you, dannyboy, who spent an entire thread ignoring people’s reasonable questions of you because you felt they were calling you names are now calling someone names.

              I really dislike these mega-towers, but I think it would be a lot wiser for people to try to deal with the root cause of the issue (ridiculous zoning laws that can be easily worked around if you hire the right lawyers) rather than going after developments on a case by case basis.

            • dannyboy says:

              leon, I NEVER call people names. Name-calling is for low people who can’t use words, not me.

              But I will use words to explain how my reply is not-at-all name calling.

              #1: Bill Dem Tall replied “YUP!” to this question: “Is it your preference for secret, behind-the scenes business over public representation?”

              His reply led me to inquire if he supports the fascist principle.

              #2: Bill Dem Tall replied “OMG, YUP-YUP-YUP!!!” to my second question:“Do you want the people to just shut up?”

              That reply led me to inquire if he supports the oppressor principle.

              Got it?

    5. Scott says:

      If zoning regs haven’t changed since 1961, I’d say it’s time to change them to reflect modern engineering and infrastructure improvements.

      • BillyNYC says:

        So what happen to “Landmarks” ? and our watch dogs at CB7 ???

        • yourneighbor says:

          Landmarks will be locked in just like now, but there are plenty of structures in the neighborhood that are not landmarked for good reason.

    6. Wendy says:

      What happened to a S.R.O. @ 94th Street ? Stop immigration into U.S.A. until 2050 ? Too many tall apt. buildings in duh South Bronx; & , in L.I.C., & in Manhattan. How tall shall be the prisons, which our muchly misguided Mayor wants to have built. STOP building Football & Baseball stadia in U.S.A., for a decade. Hire English language speaking, unionized, construction workers. Use birth control !

    7. William Raudenbush says:

      The Land Use Committee of CB7 is a thoughtful and informed group that possesses not just the sophistication to understand complex zoning issues, but the determination to do right by the community that relies on them to represent their interests against the kind of developers that would have the audacity to redefine what a zoning lot is to justify a building like 200 Amsterdam Ave.

      I can only speak for myself, but the members of the Land use Committee are a remarkably impressive bunch and we’re lucky to have them on our Community Board.

      Please join CFESD (Committee for Environmentally Sound Development) at The Board of Standards and Appeals hearing about 200 Amsterdam Avenue.

      Tuesday, March 27, 2018, 10:00 A.M. session
      Spector Hall, 22 Reade Street, Borough of Manhattan.

      William Raudenbush
      VP Committee for Environmentally Sound Development

      • Gary Fishman says:

        Thanks for your efforts. Remember that Paris is also a great city, as well as the biggest tourist destination in the world. It is so because it has zoning laws that keep it’s core under control with modest sized buildings and neighborhoods with shops that have been there for years and beautiful parks that still get sunshine during the day, while modern development including tall buildings are assigned to the north of the city center. NY needs to keep growing, but it needs to be controlled growth to maintain livability. That’s why zoning laws exist.

    8. Christopher P Mackin says:

      I think people should stop complaining about the tall buildings going up here in the CITY. If they are unhappy about it move to the suburbs..THIS IS THE GREATEST city in the world and tall buildings going alone with that title.

    9. Rob says:

      “Grotesque”?…
      Beauty is the eye of the beholder.

    10. paulcons says:

      The last huge buildings built int he Bloomingdale neighborhood (~100th & Broadway) apparently were “legal” because the developer bought up a whole bunch of “air rights” all over the neighborhood. No mention of that here?

    11. robert says:

      Yell, scream, march, sign petitions. Have your self appointed community leaders come out and use these buildings as fund raising tools for the elcected’s that say “this time the will stop it” Almost all of the buildings that you have heard about going up on the UWS were after the fact. They all hand permits in hand long before the public started yelling. While some buildings have been delayed a couple of months ZERO have been stopped. Case in point 200 Amsterdam!
      We should all remember that when Park West Village was being built people said it was out of scale and would destroy the area etc

    12. francesca says:

      There’s the “small is beautiful” crowd, and the “bigger is better” crowd.”. Me? i’m a member if the “moderation is marvelous” crowd. You?

      • Ye Olde Englishe Teachere says:

        Re: “…“small is beautiful” crowd, … “bigger is better” crowd.”…“moderation is marvelous” crowd. You?”

        Ummm:
        1. The “Crowded is Cozy”Crowd?;
        2. The “Much-Too-Crowded”Crowd?;
        3. The “Wisdom of the Crowd”Crowd?;
        4. The “Crow at the Crowd” Crowd?
        5. The “Caw Like a Crow Crowd”?

        Proof that ANY word, if used to excess, begins to sound ridiculous.

    13. Almost sixty years have passed and its time to rewrite the NYC Zoning Resolution of 1961. Abolish air rights transfers which contribute to gerrymandered zoning lots. Update FAR to current day standards and how it is calculated. Use tax lot to calculate FAR only. Add additional retail space to highly dense residential districts with few neighborhood resources such as retail space. Make urban renewal areas conform to new zoning and planning standards. Building heights should be regulated by updated sky exposure plane and setback rules. These are only a few things to consider for a new comprehensive zoning plan for NYC. Common sense tells us the band-aid approach doesn’t fix the problem anymore.

    14. Frances says:

      Having experienced 9/11, I have zero desire to live on the 80th floor of any building in NYC. People have such short memories.

    15. Dorian says:

      Too late for a plain old very tall that is taking forever to build–closing traffic access and endless Con Ed trucks, tree molestation and hole-digging on the corner of 80th and Broadway. Sigh. I am repulsed every day and have to wonder how the narrow stairs and jammed stop on the 79th St. subway can possibly be accommodated. Also, where the hell are these extra resident grocery shop when we long-time residents have very, very limited stores as it is. Gad.

    16. Rob G. says:

      If you really want to save the Upper West Side from “grotesque” architecture, then start by tearing down Lincoln Towers, Park West Village, Mitchell Lama, and the public housing projects. These new buildings are gems compared to those monstrosities. Damn you, Robert Moses!

      • Bruce Bernstein says:

        in response to Rob G:

        So the acolytes of the super-tall ultra-expensive high rises always make the argument that “we need more housing.” never mind that these buildings provide a tiny number of units, at the ultra-high end, and that many of those units are pied-a-terres or investments and lie empty for most of the year.

        but now, one of these acolytes says that he wants to TEAR DOWN public housing and Mitchell Lamas, which actually provide THOUSANDS of affordable units on the UWS.

        in fact, the acolytes of the rich developers don’t care about affordable housing. What they DO seem to care about is exclusive enclaves for the rich. the more we do for the rich and ultra-rich, the better.

        • Rob G. says:

          Do you ever read anyone’s posts before you get on your soapbox? I’m talking aesthetics here. Try reading it again.

          • Bruce Bernstein says:

            in response to Rob. G:

            So you’re appreciative of the 10s of thousands of low and middle income adffordable units that public housing and Mitchell Lamas bring to the UWS?

            i’m glad to hear that!!!

    17. Reed says:

      the southern part of the Upper West Side should be building complete blocks of low-income and supportive housing. The region south of West 86 has virtually limited opportunities for such housing Why don’t the residents of the area support low income housing and work with the developers to give back by constructing housing for those less fortunate within the same immediate community?

    18. Phoebe says:

      Whenever someone ridicules people who bemoan a loss of sunlight die to tall buildings and their shadows, they use examples of already tall buildings that are already blocking sunlight. I don’t know how that makes it okay to build more tall buildings. Just that factor alone, especially for playgounds or over parks, cannot be a good thing for our city…my city, that I would rather defend than abandon.

    19. Mike Towrs says:

      Does NYC really need another $3,500 a month for a studio apartment building?

    20. Marianne says:

      Thank you for posting this information!!! I cannot attend the March meeting but hope you will please post the results!

    21. JerryV says:

      Of course the wise planners of The Land Use Committee of CB7 are also experienced users of local subways and buses. So naturally they have developed well thought-out plans to increase public transportation to match the expected numbers of new people living in the area. When can we see these plans?

    22. Peter says:

      Not one comment mentions NYCs ever increasing population due to immigration- legal or otherwise. If you support NYC as a sanctuary city please don’t complain about crowded schools or subways or construction.