By Carol Tannenhauser
Straining her voice to be heard over the clamor of construction, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer delivered the lead-off message to a crowd of about 50 people at a rally/press conference held Tuesday morning at 69th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The noise came from across the avenue — 200 Amsterdam, the planned 668-foot residential skyscraper that SJP Properties is still building, despite a ruling by the New York State Supreme Court that its zoning lot is illegal.
“We want to stop construction on 200 Amsterdam now!” Brewer shouted, to the appreciative audience. “The developer has gerrymandered zoning lots together in such a way as to distort the allowable height and build far higher than they would be allowed customarily under what we consider the law. It’s one of the developments across Manhattan that uses this loophole in the Zoning Resolution to create taller and denser buildings. It has got to stop.”
The construction quieted for a moment and so did Brewer’s voice, as she stated her central demand: “The Department of Buildings should stop construction while the Board of Standards and Appeals determines its new position. That is specifically why we’re here.”
City Council Member Helen Rosenthal spoke next.
“Why has the developer built in a rush about 10 stories in the last five days?” she demanded. “Because he knows he’s about to be told he has to stop building. He knows that he is breaking the Zoning Resolution law.
“What’s going on here is the community opposes this and brought a lawsuit — and the court agreed,” Rosenthal shouted, as the banging began anew. An acrid smell had arisen, which someone said “we shouldn’t be breathing.”
“What’s missing is the will of the Department of Buildings to hit the pause button,” Rosenthal continued. “That’s all we’re asking for, but, instead, what the city has allowed this developer to do is work until 10 o’clock at night, start early in the morning, work on weekends…It’s outrageous and must stop.”
The crowd cheered.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against SJP also spoke. First was Olive Freud, who discovered the questionable zoning lot in 2017, and spearheaded the subsequent actions against it, through her nonprofit Committee for Environmentally Sound Development (CFESD). Together with the Municipal Art Society of New York, led by Elizabeth Goldstein, CFESD filed the suit against SJP Properties in October, 2018. Goldstein addressed the crowd, as did their attorney, Richard Emery, who said:
“The (court’s) opinion is as clear as a crystal. This building is illegal. It is flat out a violation of the zoning law. The lot on which it is built does not support its height. It’s already four stories or so above the height that is permitted under proper interpretations of the zoning law.”
What happens to those “four stories or so” if SJP loses the lawsuit? WSR asked.
“We have laid the groundwork to argue and, I think, prevail on requiring them to take down anything in excess of what the zoning lot requires, and we will press that to the very end,” Emery said. “They are building at their peril right now. Unless they win on appeal, they will have to take it down.”
“Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney was able to do that many years ago when she was in the City Council, so it is not unprecedented,” Brewer added. “If I remember correctly, they had to take down 12 stories.”
That occurred in 1985 on 96th Street just off Park Avenue, Gothamist reported.
Shortly after the rally, SJP Properties sent WSR the following statement:
200 Amsterdam fully conforms with all zoning laws, as previously upheld by both the DOB and the BSA, the two city agencies with the primary responsibility for interpreting NYC’s zoning codes. The opposition has resorted to applying political pressure while overlooking the last 40 years of zoning history, during which several buildings have been built and occupied under the exact same zoning standards.
We are confident that New York City’s agencies will continue to apply the law in a fair manner that respects the rights of all without seeking to change the rules retroactively, after a project is already underway. We continue to make construction progress and look forward to delivering a building that will significantly benefit the neighborhood and New York City.
This project is expected to generate over $100 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years that will be used for badly needed infrastructure and service upgrades to the benefit of the entire city, all while creating a significant number of New York City jobs.