Appeals filed to block West Side tower

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Two groups, fearing similar “inappropriate developments,” file challenges to DOB building permit


  • Community groups have appealed the DOB’s decision to issue permits for a proposed 668-foot residential building at the former site of Lincoln Square Synagogue on Amsterdam Avenue near 69th Street. Photo: Daniel Fitzsimmons

Two Upper West Side groups have filed appeals with the city in an effort to block the construction of a 668-foot residential tower at 200 Amsterdam Ave. that would be the tallest building on the Upper West Side.

Work on the controversial 55-story luxury condominium development was halted over the summer by the Department of Buildings in response to an earlier zoning challenge, but in late September the agency lifted the hold and issued the project a building permit. Two groups opposing the tower, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and Landmark West, have now filed appeals with the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals in hopes of overturning the DOB’s decision to allow construction of the tower, which they claim would not fit the neighborhood’s scale or context.

The Board of Standards and Appeals has not yet announced a hearing date on the matter, which could take months to resolve. In the meantime, construction can proceed on the tower. Olive Freud, the president of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, said she hopes to obtain an injunction halting work until the board decides the appeal. In its appeal, Freud’s group requested that the agency expedite its review of the matter, citing its expectation that, barring an injunction, “construction will proceed as rapidly as possible in a ‘race to the finish line’” with the appeal.

The board, which is the city agency responsible for ruling on appeals of zoning determinations, consists of five commissioners appointed by the mayor. “The Board of Standards and Appeals is independent of the Department of Buildings, but ultimately they work for the mayor, just like the Department of Buildings does,” said George Janes, a planning consultant who has worked on the case with Freud’s group. “So you have long odds whenever you go to Department of Buildings, but we feel we have a very good case.”

The case against the tower focuses on the massive, irregularly shaped zoning lot that the building would occupy. The tower itself would occupy just a small portion of the zoning lot, at the former site of Lincoln Square Synagogue, near Amsterdam Avenue and 69th Street, but the lot itself is significantly larger — a 110,000-square-foot parcel that stretches across much of the block. As Landmark West’s appeal states, the zoning lot “ties together irregularly shaped pieces of existing tax lots with long, extremely narrow, corridors,” meandering from the site of the proposed tower all the way to West End Avenue. The lot’s footprint winds between and around the high-rises of the neighboring Lincoln Towers housing complex to include thousands of square feet of open space on the interior of the block, including walkways, driveways and parking spaces used by Lincoln Towers residents.

The building derives its exceptional height from this open space — there are no absolute height limits in the zoning district, and developers can build taller buildings by including more open space in a zoning lot.

The groups opposing the tower argue that the zoning lot was improperly formed and does not meet the definition of a zoning lot because it consists of portions of several tax lots, which they contend the law does not permit. “They took pieces of tax lots to create a zoning lot rather than entire ones,” Freud said.

Further, the groups argue that much of the area in the zoning lot that is counted as open space — the walkways, driveways and parking spaces that form the basis for the tower’s height — does not meet the zoning definition of open space, which must be “accessible to and usable by all persons occupying a dwelling unit or a rooming unit on the zoning lot.” Parking spaces and driveways used by Lincoln Towers residents, they say, would not be usable by the residents of the proposed new tower at 200 Amsterdam.

“They shouldn’t have allowed parking spaces that are already owned by other people to be counted as open space,” said Landmark West board member Susan Nial. “They are not open space.”

A spokesperson for the developer, SJP Properties, said the application was given “an exhaustive review and subsequent audit” by DOB. “In fact, it is the same zoning that was employed by three other completed buildings on the same block: 170 Amsterdam, 200 West End Avenue, and the Lincoln Square Synagogue. Upon receiving all necessary building permits on September 27, we commenced construction for 200 Amsterdam,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We look forward to continuing to efficiently and safely complete a building that will be a great addition to the neighborhood. We remain committed to working closely with neighborhood and community officials throughout this process.”

The appeals mark the latest development in a months-long effort to block the tower’s construction.

The project was stalled from June to September of this year following a zoning challenge filed with the DOB by the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, which cited several of the same objections now cited in the group’s BSA appeal. In response, the DOB put a hold on the project and requested additional documentation from the developer “to verify the open space ratio and that the zoning lot was properly formed.” According to a DOB spokesperson, the developer provided the DOB with additional information and zoning calculations that resolved the department’s objections, after which the hold was lifted and a building permit was issued Sept. 27.

Sean Khorsandi, the executive director of Landmark West, said that if the project proceeds, it could pave the way for other developers to make use of irregularly shaped zoning lots to build taller buildings on the Upper West Side. “We feel that this could be the first of many inappropriate developments if this goes through,” Khorsandi said.

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