(NEW YORK, NEW YORK)— In a victory for UWS residents and activists, New York State Supreme Court Justice W. Franc Perry has found the developers of 200 Amsterdam in violation of zoning laws and ordered the developers to remove some of the top floors, West Side Rag reports. Early estimates predict that it will amount to a whopping 20 stories in total out of the planned 51 stories. Brokerpulse brings you the complete saga so far.
The contested site at 200 Amsterdam, between 66th and 67th streets at Lincoln Center, featured a rather tasteful design by Elkus Manfredi Architects, paying homage to a classical Beaux Arts style. A compliant version of the building with the same design might have been a much-welcomed addition to the addition to the neighborhood, had the developers, SJP Residential Properties and Mitsui Fudosan America*, not violated zoning laws and courted public ire by violating previous rulings even after courts ordered a halt to construction. While many buildings frequently skirt zoning laws using affordable housing as a bargaining point, all 51 stories were to be marketed as luxury condos with no affordable housing in sight, not exactly setting up the developers for public sympathy.
The developers might be forgiven for the confusion, if not by the law, then at least in our hearts (to the extent that’s fair). Prior rulings have pin-balled back and forth alternately in favor of developers and activists for years. After a prior December 2018 ruling in favor of the developers the same Justice Perry ordered a temporary halt to continued construction in March 2019, on the grounds that the previously approved rezoning was sought on dishonest grounds. Developers violated the ruling and continued to build, apparently expecting a favorable final ruling and no repercussions. The arrogance drew the ire of residents and politicians like Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who warned the developer far in advance that they might be expected to tear down the top floors. Then, in late June 2019, New York City’s Board of Standards and Appeals overrode the state-issued court order and allowed construction to continue.
The Current Ruling
Perry’s recent ruling reiterates that the zoning was unfairly bestowed, and commands the developer to respect the zoning laws as if they had been applied as lawfully intended, to the single lot that the building will occupy. The latest ruling has been delivered at an unfortunate time, when the building has already topped out. Developers will likely try to use this to contest the ruling, however they might find little sympathy. If they had halted development for the four months that the halt order was in place, might they be in a better position to redesign for height caps, as they were warned they might be asked to do? Images from YIMBY at the time shortly after the halt order was issued show that the building was barely as tall as its neighbors; by July 2019, four months later, it was still only half way to its total height.
The ruling represents a historic challenge to the heretofore (mostly) unquestioned rights of developers, whose money allows them to wield immense power and influence “No judge has ever ordered a developer to take down a building like this, based on a lawsuit by a private party, not the city itself,” explains attorney Charles (Chuck) Weinstock to West Side Rag. Weinstock, of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP (ECBA) represented the plaintiffs, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and the Municipal Art Society of New York, in the case. Although there was a similar case once before, in 1988 when a Park Avenue Building was ordered to remove its top 12 floors, the suit was brought by the City, not private activists.
To be fair (or unfair?), gerrymandering has been a long-accepted, barely-legal violation in New York and even on a federal level. We live in a time when citizens are fed up with politicians and developers, especially the very wealthy and powerful, who willfully flout laws as if they don’t apply to them—and they often don’t. It is a corrupt system that designs laws to protect the powerless but makes exceptions for the powerful, who have the capacity to make the biggest impact on our lives. But developers are understandably shocked at the abruptness of the enforcement when for years, the city and the state have turned the other cheek at much more egregious violations.
Self-proclaimed “YIMBYs” who welcome the towering, modernist monuments may not understand what’s at stake in ten or twenty stories, when the overwhelming opposition seems to come from a small but tenacious group of activists disdainfully referred to as NIMBYs.
We’ll turn to the website of Committee for Environmentally Sound Development (CESD), one of the key plaintiffs in the suit, led by Olive Freud. From her website, Freud and the association are primarily champions of public parks, human-scale architecture, sunlight, accessible transportation, and public health and opponents of greenhouse gas emissions, noise, and hazardous materials. In a historic neighborhood, the building would be uncharacteristically tall, and, CESD argues, “It would loom over the PS 199 playground and school building, casting extensive new shadows.” While this seems like (literally) child’s play to developers and their supporters, Freud and her association act on the principle that small changes—those so small that they might even go unnoticed—make a big difference in the quality of life for longtime member of a community, whether that’s neighboring residents living in the shadow of a tower three times the height of their own building, or a local elementary school. Other campaigns by CESD include the association’s push to get the Trump Organization to build a connection from Riverside Drive to Riverside Boulevard, to decrease traffic on West End—an exceedingly small stipulation that residents of RSB and West End might notice more had they ever been forced to grapple with the large inconvenience, had the clause not been included.