By Carol Tannenhauser
A stunning and somewhat surreal development in the saga of the proposed 668-foot building at 200 Amsterdam Avenue came to light at a town hall meeting last Monday night at Rutgers Presbyterian Church.
It was revealed that, on March 9th, a letter to the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), written by Michael J. Zoltan, assistant general counsel of the Department of Buildings (DOB), acknowledged that the decision to grant a building permit to SJP Properties, the developer of 200 Amsterdam at 69th Street, was based on an “incorrect” interpretation of the “Zoning Resolution,” which governs land use and development in the City. The full letter is here.
Copied on the letter was Frank E. Chaney, an attorney who is preparing to appeal the DOB’s decision to grant the permit before the BSA, at a public hearing on March 27th. Chaney is representing the nonprofit Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, headed by Olive Freud, and strongly supported by City Council Member Helen Rosenthal and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who co-sponsored the Town Hall.
“This is a significant win for us,” said Chaney. “The DOB said, ‘You’re right, we were wrong,’ and agreed with every single argument we made. The importance of this decision cannot be overstated. This rarely happens that the DOB will acknowledge that they made a mistake.”
You would think Chaney would be ecstatic, but here’s where it gets surreal.
“As it stands now, the DOB basically agrees with our argument that the definition of a zoning lot was incorrectly interpreted by the DOB in prior rulings,” he explained, “that zoning lots should not consist of bits and pieces of various tax lots as 200 Amsterdam does. But they still think the building permit should not be revoked, because it wasn’t incorrect when they approved the zoning lot.”
The site, which developers acquired in a deal with Lincoln Square Synagogue, has already been excavated, but the zoning challenge could throw a wrench in their plans. The latest renderings are here.
“It’s so outrageous that it seems to us we should win,” Brewer said. “We’ll be pushing, because this would be a good place for the DOB and the Mayor to do the right thing. We know this building goes against the spirit and intent of the Zoning Resolution. We’re delighted that the DOB admitted that their approval was based on an erroneous interpretation of the definition of a zoning lot, and that they’ve written that to the BSA. It’s exactly what we’ve been saying all along.”
“I can see the folks at the DOB saying, ‘How was this approved? Damn, this is going to be a nightmare for all of us. We’ve got to do something about this. But we approved it, so we can live with this one, but no more,’” emailed George Janes, an urban planner, who drafted the original challenge to 200 Amsterdam’s zoning lot. “That’s effectively the argument in their papers.”
Zoltan’s letter put it this way: “The DOB is prohibited from acting in an arbitrary and capricious manner…Although the Department now recognizes that the…interpretation of the term is incorrect…the fact that [building] permits have been issued for many years in reliance on such interpretation, and based on the fact that the Department is still in the process of preparing a Bulletin that will supersede [it] and as a result has not yet rescinded [it], the Department is required to issue a permit…to avoid acting arbitrarily and capriciously.”
Brewer wasn’t buying it.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a case where the developer has so deliberately flaunted the intent of the Zoning Resolution in order to build what would be the tallest building on the UWS,” she said. “It seem to us that 200 Amsterdam is arbitrary and capricious. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t correct a mistake and not make an even bigger mess. There’s a mountain of evidence that justifies changing the interpretation right now.”
Brewer urged everyone to attend the BSA hearing, which will be held on March 27th at 10 a.m., in Spector Hall, at 22 Reade Street.
“It is possible to win this if each of us shows up,” she said. “It makes a difference. Numbers count.”
So does money.
“So far, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development is the only organization to finance this effort [Helen Rosenthal’s office has provided some support] and the community has responded very well,” Olive Freud said, “but I have to ask you for more help.”
That’s because there could be more legal fees ahead.
“One way or another, whatever the BSA ultimately decides, I’m fairly certain that we’re going to court,” said Frank Chaney. “If the BSA decides in our favor and revokes the permit, guaranteed the property owners and their attorneys are going to take it to court. If they decide in favor of the owners and do not revoke the permit, then, very likely, we’re going to court. But, for now, our first objective is to get before the BSA and try to convince them that they can revoke the permit; it would not be arbitrary and capricious to do so. It would be the right thing to do.”
“If we can win here,” Rosenthal said, “that would be precedent-setting, citywide. If they win it means that even more audacious proposals will be coming down the road. That’s what’s at stake here.”
“There probably will be at least one follow-up hearing,” said Chaney. “We’re going to push very hard to minimize the number of follow-up hearings, so we can get a decision, because, all the while this is going on, they’re continuing to prepare the site for building.”