Opponents of Upper West Side’s Tallest Tower Have New Hope After City Letter Cites ‘Incorrect’ Zoning Interpretation

A rendering of 200 Amsterdam Avenue, which will be the neighborhood’s tallest building if it is allowed to proceed.

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.”

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

      “This rarely happens that the DOB will acknowledge that they made a mistake.”

      AND ““It makes a difference. Numbers count.”

      So does money.”

      ah…the Money Shot!

    2. Sally says:

      How can we support their effort to block? Is there a web site where donations can be made?

    3. dannyboy says:

      “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.”

      Remember Trump Tower!

    4. Scott says:

      Why are they opposed to this ice scraper looking building? Because it’s big? That’s not a very good reason is it.

      • Jay says:

        That’s essentially their argument. It’s a few feet taller than the building 200 feet away.

        • Bruce Bernstein says:

          in response to Jay:

          i don’t think it’s only a “few feet taller.” but apparently they were right that zoning regulations were broken.

          You and the real estate sycophants have predicted that the courageous Olive Freud and her volunteer crew would get nowhere against the Power of Big Developers. It seems like you were wrong. Would you like to rethink your stance?

          Go Olive!!!

          • Jay says:

            Yes… a few feet. Two buildings within a five minute walk are 600 feet tall.

            You and the rest of the NIMBYs may be celebrating today over nothing. I hope you aren’t too surprised when this building gets built largely as is.

            • Bruce Bernstein says:

              response to Jay:

              1) this building is 668 feet. the difference with a 600 ft building is not “a few feet.”

              2) can you say the address of the two 600 foot buildings? they went from 200 ft away to “a five minute walk” away. 200 ft does not take five minutes to walk.

              I just want to check your facts. the rich-developer sycophants on this blog have a tendency to exaggerate. Just sayin’…

            • Jay says:

              You asked, I will provide, even though it will change nothing. These buildings could abut 200 Amsterdam and you’d still say it’s “out of context”. It’s funny how little you know about the neighborhood.

              3 Lincoln Center – 66th and Amsterdam. A whopping 3 short blocks away

              Hawthorn Park – 62nd and Amsterdam. That seven short blocks away. So far that you probably can’t see it from 200 Amsterdam, since there’s several tall towers between the two sites.

              I like to have factual, rational conversations. Something you and the rest of the NIMBY gang can’t seem to handle.

            • Bruce Bernstein says:

              response to Jay:

              I see you love making gratuitous insults and tooting your own horn.

              obviously, 200 Amsterdam represents a new front, or beachhead, in over-development creeping north. you don’t like that people are having some success in fighting it… why not? either you have financial interests in over-development, in some sense, or you just have a knee-jerk affection for rich developers.

              by the way, neither of the 2 buildings you named are “200 ft” away. it seems like at a minimum you would apologize for your exaggeration.

            • Jay says:

              Ahh… more ad hominem attacks from Bruce. How typical…

              Is there a particular reason why you can’t have a fact-based conversation?

              I’m not worried about this development. It will happen. If it doesn’t, no biggie as far as I’m concerned. There will be another one to take its place. If you and the rest of NIMBYs want to start making changes, it should start with coming up with better arguments.

        • Bruce Bernstein says:

          response to Jay:

          fact based? why don’t you tell me which of the 600′ buildings you refer to is 200 ft away, as you claim above? if you can’t, you should apologize for your exaggeration.

          And why don’t you and your fellow wealth-worshiper Sherman come out from behind your anonymity?

          your use of the word “NIMBY” to refer to people who are concerned about quality and scale of our neighborhoods is in itself an ad hominem attack.

          • Jay says:

            Still more ad hominem attacks. Good job, “bruce”.

            I won’t apologize for anything. As I said before, these other 600 foot tall buildings could abut 200 Amsterdam and you and the nimby gang would still say they are “out of context”. You can’t even define out of context and your big issue is that those buildings are 800 feet away when I gave an off-the cuff comment. That’s why nimbys never win. You can’t come up with any good arguments and distract yourselves with dumb comments.

            You can ignore all of my posts from now on. I won’t be responding to you since you can’t deal with facts and can’t respond without ad hominem attacks.

    5. Lawyered Up says:

      The letter reflects reality, which is this: There is a now – 40 year old interpretation of the zoning resolution that was 30 years old, unchallenged, and left unquestioned, at the time the developers bought the site from the Lincoln Square Synagogue.

      This deal followed at least two others on that super-block at the expiration of the 40 year urban renewal restrictions in place when Lincoln Towers was opened. Both buildings, now in place on opposite corners of that block, are taller than the preexisting Lincoln Towers structures. One is almost as big as the building now in question. Also noteworthy are the very tall buildings that have been built on the Fordham campus a few blocks south at the expiration of the identical urban renewal restrictions on that superblock.

      The use of the site for a very very very big building was no secret 10 years ago, and the prospect of a 600 foot building was, in fact discussed in the newsletter of The Coalition froma Liveable West Side as early as 2006. It is easy to show that the agreements surrounding the planned construction, including the price, the land swap, etc., were made in due reliance on the existing 30 year old interpretation and approvals in reliance thereon.

      A review of this building based on a new interpretation of the zoning rules, ten years after the agreements were made, should not change the result reached years ago.

      This should have been litigated in 2007.

    6. Sherman says:

      I was at this meeting.

      All this squabbling over “tax lots” is nonsense and besides the point. The heart of the matter is that these activists and self-appointed community leaders do not want any new construction and they are looking for any excuse to prevent the neighborhood from changing, lest this somehow impacts their own housing entitlements.

      At the presentation even the lawyer fighting to block this construction acknowledged that NYC zoning laws are based on rules from 1961. In case anybody hasn’t noticed both the city and the technology involved in constructing large buildings has changed since 1961.

      These rules from 1961 are obsolete and should have been changed long ago to adapt to a changing world.

      I hope the towers at 200 Amsterdam and on West 66th Street get constructed ASAP.

      • dannyboy says:

        “I hope the towers at 200 Amsterdam and on West 66th Street get constructed ASAP.”

        Hey “Sherm”,

        Hate your neighbors?

        • Zeus says:

          For once (!) I agree with you 100%.
          As a matter of fact, make it over
          700 feet high.

          • dannyboy says:

            Zeus you must know that quotation marks indicate that the words within are a quotation, right?

            The Commissioners were not fully sold on either argument and will continue the hearing on June 5th. Mark your calendars for round 2!

        • Bruce Bernstein says:

          Sherm seems to hate a lot more people than just his neighbors.

          In a way, i suppose we should be glad that this news site gives him a relatively harmless way to work out all his pent up anger and resentments.

      • Christina says:

        “These rules from 1961 are obsolete and should have been changed long ago to adapt to a changing world.”

        You can say that about a lot of rules/laws including ones in the Constitution! Yes! We are a changed world and if the rules for zoning should change so should a lot of other outdated laws! Specifically certain ones in the Constitution. I know I’m Really off topic BUT if zoning is outdated, so are a lot of other Laws, constitutional and otherwise! Just sayin’…

        • Sherman says:

          I hate to admit it but I agree with you.

          That’s why I believe the Second Amendment needs to be amended as I don’t expect the King of England to send his troops to invade the US anytime soon.

          • dannyboy says:

            I always thought the 2nd Amendment was intended to arm the slave-owners.

            While we don’t expect the King of England to send his troops to invade the US anytime soon, looks like some are going for that other situation to happen.

            • Phoebe says:

              We need to better “arm” counter-cyber criminals from attacks from within and without. The problem is, whom can we trust?

            • dannyboy says:

              “The problem is, whom can we trust?”

              My general philosophy is to trust people until they prove me wrong. That way I make more friends than enemies.

          • Phoebe says:

            Sherman, I’ll second your comment about the Second Amendment.
            Some of your other comments–not so much.

    7. Rob G. says:

      Surreal is right. In comparison, look at the rest of the crappy architecture in the area that was allowed to go up over the past decades. And THIS is the one they want to stop?

    8. Reg Lincoln says:

      The activists have won the argument that the lots were overcounted and an excessively tall building plan was approved erroneously 9/2017. Now fighting for the proper implementation of this admission — reduction of the building height to a legal proportion.
      They expect a lot of people at the hearing tomorrow 3/27, 10am, Spector Hall, 22 Reade St.

    9. BJK says:

      I’m so tired of this drawn-out legal fight. We sit here with a giant hole and a construction site while they file papers and write letters. I’d rather have anything there at this point no matter how big or tall instead of a gaping, muddy hole.

      • pumpkinpie says:

        And the construction workers at street level “directing” pedestrian traffic, barking orders and ordering around neighborhood residents, giving precedence to trucks accessing the site and shunting pedestrians aside. That is when they aren’t standing around doing nothing or yakking on their phones.

    10. Anonymous says:

      It’s so ugly, and odd shaped…might fall over…Dopey to add more population going to W. 72nd & Broadway IRT…which was declared obsolete 20 years after being built in the 1800’s and taking “forever” to add the “lovely” entrance. Seems to me that releasing apts. that are held empty “forever” is the biggest issue. City needs GOOD Mass Transit.

    11. Gretchen says:

      Well, I wouldn’t be all too optimistic here. The gerrymandering air rights, which has been going on for decades in this city, is exactly how Trump built his Trump World Tower by the U.N. despite notable people like Walter Cronkite, who were vehemently against it and organized a community resistance to no avail. Big developers always win because they got teams of lawyers on the payroll, so they can wait till their adversaries run out of cash and energy.

    12. Phoebe says:

      I’d prefer the gaping, muddy hole.

    13. yourneighbor says:

      I know lots of people are living in fantasy land but here is the viewpoint from a native new yorker realist:

      The developer already spent tens of millions of dollars purchasing property, planning and performing thousands of hours of legwork to get THIS project going.

      Through no fault of the developer, the city might have misinterpreted the rules.

      The city isn’t going to invite a huge, well funded lawsuit by now denying the permit.

      This project is going to get completed. Future projects might get more scrutiny.

    14. Annie Laurie says:

      I don’t get why people are opposed to this building. The design is beautiful and the height is what makes it especially significant and iconic in the skyline. The surrounding area has so many ugly buildings that this will be a benefit to the area. I never notice shadows from large buildings. Its one thing if the building was ugly but this is a great design.

      It seems like certain older residents of the UWS want no change and want to fossilize the UWS. There is some very tasteful development going up in other parts of the city and its a shame so many ordinary or awful buildings are in landmarked areas. I am all for preserving great architecture but not every crappy building on UWS needs to be saved. I hope this building gets approved at its original intended height.

    15. Yvonne says:

      That monstrosity of a building does not belong in our neighborhood. We need affordable housing not apartments for the super rich that I am sure will sit half or more empty

      • Sherman says:

        If the developer can find people willing to buy these apartments then they’re “affordable”.

        • Bruce Bernstein says:

          right, Sherman, and a Bentley is an affordable car.

          why are you such a cheerleader for rich people oppressing poor and middle class people? Just wondering.

    16. Andrew says:

      This proposed building is more than two football fields high–too tall!

      • SecondFloor says:

        That’s tall! Thank you for putting the building’s height in a format that is easily understandable for those of us who are not a bright as others. I didn’t realize just how tall this would be before when the height was listed in those tiny units called “feet”!

    17. Tai says:

      Don’t want tall buildings on the uws

    18. AROL says:

      Build, build, build.

    19. Mia says:

      I don’t understand people who think blocking this building will somehow net the city more affordable housing. Developers and landlords have no interest in our city. They are happy to leave storefronts empty and raise rents well beyond what a normal middle class or even people on the low end of “upper” middle class can afford. Our last building turned into mostly very wealthy people from Europe and China and some who are subsidized by their companies. The rent became absurd. There seems to be a never-ending stream of such customers and so these luxury buildings will proliferate. If only the developers and landlords cared a little less about obscene profits and would lower rents and also allow businesses to have a fair shot in their storefronts. . .

      • Sean says:

        Storefronts are empty everywhere because the retail landscape is changing. All over Europe the same thing is happening as it is here. The rich and tourists are pushing everyone else to the outskirts of town.

    20. robert says:

      As usually the “self appointed” community leaders at it again. READ the document. The “tax lots” in question are for the parking lot NOT the building its self. Section IV which I have cut & pasted below says it all. Have you noticed that the build site is still active and the foundation is going in? Go ahead waste more of your money, oh that’s right its and election year so you will use this as a fund raising tool for your preferred candidates.

      IV. CONCLUSION Based on the foregoing, the Department respectfully requests that the Board affirm the Department’s September 27, 2017 determination to issue the Pennit.

    21. Jo Baldwin says:

      Don’t forget, that at the end, and we all know this money talks and we all know what walks.

    22. Sherman says:

      Interesting article in the NY Post from the other day about this building.

      When I attended the meeting I was under the impression that the opponents of this building had solid legal grounds to block it. Being that I’m not a lawyer myself I found the lawyer who spoke at this meeting to be very convincing.

      But this article implies the opponents are relying on a very flimsy and obscure interpretation of the zoning laws and they don’t have much of a legal justification to block the building’s construction.

      In summary, it looks like the lawyers for the opponents of this building will get rich collecting fees and the building will likely go up anyway.


      • dannyboy says:

        Money – That which allows lazy people to do stupid things without painful consequences, thus keeping them forever stupid.

        It’s not wrong to have money; it’s wrong for money to have you.

        -Urban Dictionary

    23. wolfart says:

      Speaking just for myself, whose apt looks up at the two tall buildings on bway and 99th, my only long standing objectionable aspect is how ugly and unrentable the ground floor retail space is. Had the developers even tried to design attractive and better proportioned spaces, that could house an interesting store or restaurants, the building would be an asset to the neighborhood. Then again, I’m glad the zoning’s changed so there won’t be more of them…

    24. ann kleiman says:

      Thanks to Brewer, Rosenthal and Olive for following this so carefully.
      I guess miracles sometimes happen and maybe a change in zoning for the City will occur thanks to their hard work.