NYC Superscrapers - Forum
CCM Ben Kallos Hosts Superscraper Zoning Forum
I attended a 'Superscraper Forum' hosted by NYC Councilmember Ben Kallos of the Upper East Side neighborhood on a comfortable Thursday evening at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. It was to begin at 6.30 pm and 250 people had reserved seats for an auditorium that held 140 seats and had space for about 40 standing.
To be sure the auditorium was full when I arrived and I caught only the tail end of what the first speaker had to say. There were over a half dozen speakers, including NYC Councilmember Ben Kallos who organized the meeting which was attended by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer who arrived near the end of it.
The other speakers included the first speaker who was from the NYC Department of Housing & Planning, who I missed, as well as the following: Emma Marconi Bologna of Civitas NYC, Tara Kelly of the Friends of the Upper East Side, Margaret Newman of the Municipal Art Society, and three other people whose names and associations I did not catch. One may have been an architect, one may have been a representative of the East 50's Association which is a group dedicated to reining in Superscrapers, and there might have been one from the Sutton Area Community neighborhood association.
Click here to read the rest of our report about NYC Zoning Laws: Superscraper Zoning for the Upper East Side & Sutton Place.
NYC Superscrapers - Forum
CCM Ben Kallos Hosts Superscraper Zoning Forum
Why Manhattan & NYC Real Estate Developers Love Superscrapers - $$$$
I'm going to summarize some of the things I learned in the meeting, which moved quickly and contained a lot of detailed information. Essentially the issue is that NYC and Manhattan real estate developers have been pushing the envelope of late in erecting buildings as tall as somewhere between what's technologically possible and realistic. They do this to maximize the return on their investment in a piece of property as they can amortize their costs over more units, thus making more money.
Why Neighborhoods & Communities Don't Like Superscrapers
The people who already live and work in the area aren't too keen on having developers erect these tall buildings because they significantly raise the density in the area, putting strains on existing infrastructure of pedestrian walkways, scarce parkland, limited seats in public schools and transportation. But that's not all folks, as they also block precious sunlight by casting an ever longer shadow over the perimeter surrounding the neighborhood and block the views of the existing residents.
An Incomplete & Brief History of Real Estate Zoning For Manhattan & the Upper East Side
So some of what occurred at this meeting was a rehashing of what I just summarized, along with a bit of history and explanation about real estate zoning on the Upper East Side. Again, a summary of it seems worthwhile because it helps provide some perspective on where we have come from, which might help us decide where we are going. If we go way back, in the beginning zoning limited building heights to 75 feet or about six stories, due to fire extinguishing limitations and at the time there weren't elevated buildings. As elevators came on line, and sprinkler systems and asbestos, the zoning heights climbed. In the early 1930's builders reached what seemed a reasonable limit with the Empire State Building.
The Longest Running Superscraper - The Empire State Building
The Empire State Building soared about 1225 feet into the air and contains 103 stories [goes higher with the spire] and for decades was the tallest building in the world. Since the 1930's heights leveled off a bit as building heights are limited in some respect by the elevators. Hence only a few buildings have been erected which are taller, including the World Trade Center in New York City [tallest from 1971 - 1973] and the Sears Tower in Chicago [tallest from 1973 - 1998] - both of which came in about 1,350 feet high and about 110 stories. Since the end of the last century, other countries have been vying for tallest building. Today the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in the Middle East, which stands 2,717 feet tall and contains 163 stories.
Special Upper East Side Real Estate Zoning Guidelines
Meanwhile, back on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, there was a real estate law passed in 1973, which required compliance by developers with what was termed contextual zoning. The MTA issued a report that explains the area covered and associated requirements:
"The Special Madison Avenue Preservation District was established to preserve and reinforce the character of Madison Avenue and the surrounding area from 61st to 96th Streets. Street wall height provisions limit the height of new development to the scale of existing buildings, require a continuous building facade along Madison Avenue, mandate continuous ground-floor development of selected stores, and require the provision of useable recreational space on rooftops.
Similarly, the Special Park Improvement District was created to preserve the character of Fifth and Park Avenues. This district runs along both avenues from 60th to 96th Street, and limits the heights of new buildings and mandates street wall continuity."
Current Upper East Side Real Estate Zoning Guidelines
While this zoning governs those specific areas, which were referenced by a presenter for the Friends of the Upper East Side, there's a broader zoning code that governs the entire Upper East Side which allows large, tall densely populated buildings on the ends of blocks and restricts the height of those in the middle of the block to provide everyone with some air and light.
One of the speakers noted that only 1% of the Upper East Side is open space. It's worth mentioning that this speaker, in some respect, has overstated the problem as the Upper East Side is adjacent to Central Park. But that said, from most parts of the Upper East Side, Central Park is a long walk.
Currently there's a large building scheduled for erection at 60th Street and Lexington adjacent to Bloomingdales. Margaret Newman of the Municipal Art Society talked about the 'Accidental Skyline'. The Municipal Art Society notes that all too often people are caught by surprise by real estate developments erected in their neighborhoods. The Municipal Art Society, through its website at www.mas.org tries to help residents become engaged in the process through the tools they have established on their website. They referenced a 900 foot tall tower in 57th Street, which now casts a long shadow over Central Park. And they note there are others too.
Margaret told us the zoning regulations aren't all uniform and hence some developers have been able to purchase mid block lots where they can and likely will build beyond the traditional height limits.
Manhattan Real Estate Developers Interaction With Community Boards
Since 1961 [not entirely sure this is accurate] New York City real developers have been required to present to the community boards and / or the land use committee before they begin erecting a new building. [Editor's note: It may be if a zoning change required, rather than any new construction.]. Landholders have what's called an 'as of right' jurisdiction over their property, wherein they can build things without community input as long as it's within the Upper East Side [or other neighborhood] real estate zoning guidelines.
BauHouse Plans For Superscraper At Sutton Place NYC
This brought the topic back to the immediate issue, which is that it appears the New York City real estate developer Bauhouse Group may build a Superscaper on some properties it bought just west of Sutton Place on 58th Street. Apparently the Bauhouse Group was able to buy the air rights from other buildings in the neighborhood, which gives them the right to use those rights to lengthen the height on the new purchases because the new properties [I believe] have what's called R10 zoning, which is from an earlier period, which limits the height of a building to 1,000 feet which is only about 350 feet lower than the Empire State Building roof.
Someone was concerned that this sort of Manhattan real estate developer strategy would just be the beginning of the erection of a number of new future Superscrapers. We were informed that the end blocks of 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue all have R10 real estate zoning.
Citizen Organization Required To Make Needed Superscraper R10 Zoning Changes
So we were told what the folks in the neighborhood can do. First, Margaret said, is to: 1 ) Act NOW by getting involved and working through your NYC Councilmember to get a Superscraper moratorium passed, 2) educate yourself on the requirements needed to pass a moratorium as City Planning needs ample evidence there's an issue before they can issue a moratorium, 3) someone noted that there are four [I saw three in the published reports] sites owned by LLC's with various names [a technique used to keep the public from knowing they're owned by the same organization that may have an intent to merge the lots in order to erect a large building], and 4) participate in your Community Board because even though they have no direct power, they represent voting blocks and government officials respond to that.
Question & Answer Session At Upper East Side Superscraper Zoning Meeting
As for #3 one speaker said there should be a law requiring transparency by LLC's and organizations planning to consolidate lots so the public has an opportunity to react in time.
There are several community / neighborhood organizations that are mobilizing to thwart the erection of the superscraper in the Sutton Place neighborhood. They include the Sutton Area Community [SAC] and the East 50's River Alliance.
Superscrapers At Sutton Place & Elsewhere Impact On Quality Of Life
One speaker talked about how the superscrapers are more than just the Manhattan real estate developers gaming the system. They said that the NYC real estate developers are depriving the entire neighborhood of its sunlight by way of their long shadows, they are adding significantly to the population density which affects traffic congestion, school crowding. And that during the course of the two year construction period the neighbors are going to have to contend with air and noise pollution, and the safety of seniors and children.
Organizing Sutton Place & Surrounding Upper East Side & Midtown Neighborhoods
To that end, one organizer said that they've been reaching out to other neighborhood and community organizations like the New York Public Library, SunshineNewYork.com or Project Sunshine.org, Civitas [who spoke], the Municipal Art Society [who spoke], Community Board 5 and Community Board 6.
The East 50's River Alliance has hired a zoning lawyer to look into the issue. I believe the President, Hirsch, spoke at the event. Essentially they're looking for a rational basis to stop the Bauhouse Group from building a superscraper. And he noted that they will need all the community and government support they can get.
Process For Real Estate Zoning Changes - Gale Brewer
Gale Brewer spoke at the event. She said the key to preventing superscrapers was in taking pre-emptive and preventative action. She noted that a superscraper was slated to be built in the South Street Seaport Historic District and to date one has not yet been built. She said the ULURP [Uniform Land Use Reform Process] is long and complicated but that the best touch point for local residents was through the Community Board, which has no direct power but has influential power on the city council and Mayor.
New York City Council member Ben Kallos said that he would like to see the R10 zoning changed so that it's not such a carte blanche to be used by NYC real estate developers to circumvent Manhattan real estate zoning codes. One can stop a Manhattan real estate development if they can prove that the infrastructure is insufficient to support it - but he went on to say that that is very difficult to do.
Continuous Battle Between Neighborhoods & Civic Groups & NYC Manhattan Real Estate Developers
They noted that the surrounding community boards are grappling with the same issue.
In Midtown NYC Council member Garodnick had collaborated with Manhattan Borough President Brewer establish criteria to enable Manhattan real estate developers to earn real estate development credits by making infrastructure capacity improvements or helping with public space or preservation.
We'll have more on this at a later date.
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