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.”