Residents on the Upper West Side have never been shy about their opposition to new developments that they believe clash with the area’s prewar sensibilities. Now, The New York Times reports, neighborhood activists are pushing back, vigorously, against three luxury condo towers.
Preservationists argue that the proposed towers simply don’t belong in an area known for its stately prewar apartment buildings and townhouses. They also take issue with the way developers have taken advantage of loopholes in the zoning code to maximize the height of their projects and consequently their profits.
The three contested buildings include: a 69-story condo at 50 W. 66th St., where construction has been stalled by legal challenges since 2019; a 52-story condo at 200 Amsterdam Ave., where a judge ordered the developer last year to remove the top 20 floors, but is now slated to open at full height this summer; and a 20-story cantilevered building on 91st Street that neighbors oppose for its mass and design.
In 2016, the developer Extell submitted a permit application for a building at 50 W. 66th St. that would be 262 feet tall, a height not entirely out of keeping with the area’s low-rise flavor. The developer subsequently pieced together five different parcels to expand the building site and also purchased air rights from a nearby armory. Then in the summer of 2018, Extell submitted a revised design that included mechanical spaces with unusually high ceilings, known as voids, which do not count against a building’s maximum height. The 160-foot mechanical void on the 18th floor of the building, as well as two other smaller mechanical voids, pushed the building’ height to a staggering 775 feet.
In an interview with Habitat, Sean Khorsandi, executive director of the neighborhood preservation group Landmark West, says the reason his group has sued to block construction at 50 W. 66th St. is because it believes the developer, Extell, has gamed the city’s zoning laws.
“Our whole complaint is over the excessive mechanical spaces,” Khorsandi says. “When the city did rezoning in 1961, mechanical spaces didn’t count in allowable floor area. These spaces have grown over time. I think there’s a level of audacity here that hasn’t been tried before. Nobody has tried to stretch mechanicals to 160 feet.”
Khorsandi insists that Landmark West is not opposed to all development. Citing the supertall condo towers on Billionaires’ Row, he says, “With all their amenities, these buildings are vacuums. We want a vibrant city. New York needs affordable housing – and all you see is these luxury condos. We’re looking for reasonable development that suits the neighborhood.”
Given the power that Extell and other developers wield in this city, that may be asking too much.
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