This story was originally published on April 24, 2020 by THE CITY.
By Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY
A controversial Upper West Side building is back under construction — just two weeks after its developer vowed to halt work under the state’s coronavirus PAUSE order.
The city Department of Buildings gave permission to the developers of 200 Amsterdam Ave. — the tower a judge in February said must be downsized by as many as 20 stories — to continue “emergency work,” according to an email to a local official from the agency obtained by THE CITY.
Workers were back at the site as of Thursday, according to an inspection by the buildings department, the email said.
“The 200 Amsterdam Avenue location was approved for additional emergency work for the issues of potential safety and health concerns due to wind forces, damage to partially installed equipment, and water infiltration of the incomplete building envelope,” the message from DOB read.
The green light from the city comes as the state has lifted restrictions on allowed construction after its virtual complete shutdown of development in March. The number of job sites allowed to continue with work ballooned sixfold from 800 on April 3 to 4,936 as of April 22, THE CITY found.
By Friday, the number of sites had increased again, to 5,091, according to the department’s list of approved projects.
‘Ramping up Work’
The developer of 200 Amsterdam, SJP Properties, said it “will be slowly ramping up work beginning with approximately 15 workers,” increasing that number to 45 workers by next week “in order to follow appropriate social distancing protocols,” according to a construction update emailed to the Upper West Side community Wednesday.
“This represents approximately 8-10% of those typically on-site prior to the coronavirus outbreak,” the message from the developer read.
The developers said the site received permits to work on exterior walls, mechanical and electrical rooms, elevators and waterproofing.
In a statement, SJP spokesperson Andrew Koreyva said the health and safety of workers “is vital and will be closely monitored in strict adherence to DOB protocols.”
“Every crew member will be provided with personal protective equipment, have their temperatures checked when entering the site, and be directed to abide by required social distancing rules,” he said.
The DOB defended the work as necessary, saying the developer “produced credible concerns” about the effect of wind on the building’s incomplete facade.
“It is understood that when the exterior wall is incomplete, there are wind tunnels through the interior of the building … which can destabilize sections and create a potential safety problem,” the message from the agency read.
Andrew Rudansky, Department of Buildings spokesperson, said in a statement that the agency has “a stringent review process in place to only approve emergency work that is in the interest of public safety.”
“In these unprecedented times, we must make sure work sites that are paused do not become a safety hazard over time,” he said. “If we find any work does not meet that definition, we will shut it down.”
Neighbors and local elected officials are irate about the exception — and cast doubts on SJP’s contention the unfinished building is unsafe.
In a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio sent Friday, West Side leaders underscored that SJP did not stop work at the site until April 9. The West Side Rag previously reported the firm was one of the last companies to shut down construction in the area.
“Why did SJP close its site two weeks ago if outstanding emergency electrical and exterior work truly existed? How did these serious concerns become an emergency only yesterday?” the letter read.
Officials asked the mayor to “revoke all permits related to construction at 200 Amsterdam immediately.”
“This site has been operating on a public trust deficit for years,” they said in the letter, signed by seven officials, including Comptroller Scott Stringer, Rep. Jerry Nadler, Assemblymembers Linda Rosenthal and Richard Gottfried, State Senator Brad Hoylman, Councilmember Helen Rosenthal and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
The Amsterdam Avenue development has long drawn the ire of some Upper West Side neighbors, leading to a court battle over whether SJP had illegally exploited land rules to boost the height of the planned residential building.
That fight led to a February ruling by a State Supreme Court judge ordering that as many as 20 floors should be removed from the tower. Since then, the city’s Law Department has appealed the ruling — while the city’s buildings department said it would close the zoning loophole used by the developer at 200 Amsterdam.
Rosenthal says SJP’s recent move is the latest in a series of actions that shows “utter contempt for the community and the law.”
“The judge in the case said ‘Take down at least 20 stories’ and, sure, they’re appealing it, but that is the decision that stands right now,” she said. “Instead, they’re like ‘Let’s get back to work.’ How is this essential?”
Olive Freud, the Upper West Sider who has led the charge against SJP in court through her group Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, said the tower is blocking out sun and light, “leaving us in the shadows.”
“The only thing they should be doing on that lot is taking down the excess height,” she said.
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.