By Carol Tannenhauser
The Committee for Environmentally Sound Development (CFESD) filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday, challenging the ruling of the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), regarding the legality of the zoning lot that will allow a residential building at 200 Amsterdam Avenue and 69th Street to rise 668’ high.
On Friday morning, supporters of the lawsuit gathered across the street from the construction site for a rally/fundraiser that was high spirited and well attended. The sound of hammering was constant in the background; an enormous crane loomed overhead; construction workers covered the two or three floors that have already been built.
“The fact that you see some concrete going up is not definitive,” said Richard D. Emery, a noted civil rights attorney, who is representing CFESD. “This fight is not over. We have exacted from these people an agreement that nothing they build can be used to their benefit in the legal case to prove how much they have already invested. They’re building at their own risk. They may have to take this down.”
SJP Properties, the developer, doesn’t believe that will happen. In an email to WSR, a spokesperson wrote: “200 Amsterdam’s zoning permits have been exhaustively reviewed by both the Department of Buildings and the BSA, the two city agencies with the highest authority to interpret NYC’s zoning codes. Following thorough analysis and public testimony, both agencies determined that the building fully conforms with the city’s zoning laws.”
Emery doesn’t put much stock in the BSA’s determination. “The Board of Standards and Appeals — a lot of them mayoral appointees — has essentially ceded zoning in any area of the city to the developers, who simply declare what a zoning lot is,” he contended. “That is a very serious degradation of the protections that zoning gives people in this city. And that’s really the essence of the lawsuit.”
Tom Devaney, Senior Director of Land Use & Planning at the Municipal Art Society of New York, which joined the fight against 200 Amsterdam about a year ago, called the BSA’s ruling “a horrible precedent.”
“We depend on zoning to protect our neighborhoods and give us a sense that there are predictable actions that work in our favor and we have a say in,” Devaney said. “The decision by the BSA is an affront to this predictability. Once again, we find the city and the BSA siding with developers and private interests over public interests.”
SJP characterized the motivations of the opposition as less lofty. “This appeal is a last-ditch attempt by a well-funded group of NIMBY activists whose previous efforts to block this as-of-right development have failed at every turn,” they wrote. “We are confident that this lawsuit will be dismissed, as have all previous challenges, on the grounds that this project is fully compliant with NYC’s zoning resolution. The development team for 200 Amsterdam has followed the law completely and continues to make unabated construction progress.”
Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who has been fighting the building for two years, gave a fiery rebuttal. “I’m at my limit,” she said. “I cannot fathom why the administration can’t see what’s right before its face. This is going to be a 60-story high rise that belongs on West 57th Street or below. It serves absolutely no public policy purpose. And still the city is allowing developers to go through loopholes and create new ones. It’s outrageous.”
A teaser site for the new building says apartments will start at $2.95 million.
State Assembly Members Linda Rosenthal and Richard Gottfried also spoke against the project, as did representatives of Congressman Jerrold Nadler and the Tribeca Trust, a nonprofit fighting to preserve the “human scale and architectural character” of that neighborhood.
Ultimately, what’s good for a community may be in the eyes of the beholder.
SJP Properties sees it this way:
“We look forward to delivering a building that will significantly benefit the neighborhood and public at large by generating millions of dollars in annual tax revenue, creating a significant number of jobs, and providing additional housing that will further enhance this great Upper West Side community.”
Richard Emery has a different perspective:
”We do not want a bunch of safe deposit boxes in the sky in our neighborhood,” he said. “These buildings are built for rich people, for oligarchs, to put their money into apartments they don’t live in. This building will, if it’s allowed to go forward, completely change the character of this community. And it’s just one more incursion, moving slowly uptown. We want to stand our ground here, and stop this incursion. This is a critical case, a bright line that we’re trying to draw. I’m not standing here with you today in some kind of a Sisyphean effort. This is a real effort that has actual legal power to it. We can win this case.”
“We’ll win because we’re right,” said Olive Freud, president of CFSED, and leader of the opposition.
Emery expects a decision by December.