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'The Developer Is Pulling A Fast One': UWS Residents Try To Stop Work At Contested Tower

200 Amsterdam
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200 Amsterdam Elizabeth Kim / Gothamist

A group of Upper West Side residents and elected officials are calling on the city to stop construction of a controversial residential tower following a court decision that found that the building permit was wrongly issued for the 670-foot-tall project.

“In just the last fortnight, we’ve seen this building rise above the height of the nearby buildings,” said city councilmember Helen Rosenthal on Tuesday, speaking at a joint press conference she and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer held at the construction site on 69th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

“I think the developer is pulling a fast one,” she added.

In an uncommon decision for New York zoning cases, a state Supreme Court judge last month ruled that the city must send the plans at 200 Amsterdam Avenue back for another review by the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, on the grounds that the building's height relied on illegally assembling air rights from unrelated parcels.

However, the judge did not call for a halt in construction. As a result, developers SJP Properties and Mitsui Fudosan have forged ahead with construction. The building appears to be nearly halfway done. Opponents are worried that the project’s tapered shape will allow the smaller upper floors to be finished within the next month.

The developers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Board of Standards and Appeals, which consists of mayoral appointees, is expected to review the plans as early as late May, according to Carlo Costanza, the agency’s executive director.

Nevertheless, Brewer has said she does not want to wait that long and has called on the DOB to issue a stop work order. “That’s what should be happening today,” she said on Tuesday.

Rosenthal agreed, saying, "I think the DOB can issue a stop work order now. There’s nothing in the court order that doesn’t allow them to do that."

The DOB has referred questions about the project to the city's Law Department. A spokesperson for that department recently told Gothamist that the judge's decision does not "invalidate the construction permits for this project." Construction, he added, "is allowed to proceed under the current permits."

Last year, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and the Municipal Art Society filed a joint lawsuit against the city and the developers. The two groups argued that the previous owner of the site had purchased air rights from separately owned parcels that were connected by thin strips of land, in what they said was an illegal assemblage that they compared to gerrymandering.

The current developers bought the site, which was formerly home to the Lincoln Square Synagogue, in 2015 for $275 million from American Continental Properties. They paid the price based on their understanding that the transfer of air rights was legal.

The two community groups are now seeking a temporary restraining order on the project. They are due in court on April 29, according to William Raudenbush, of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development.

Developers in New York have a history of continuing construction during legal challenges, often because the courts have upheld the city’s permitting process. In the cases where they do lose, developers can apply for a variance by arguing that it would pose an undue hardship to dismantle the project.

It would not be unprecedented for the city to ask the developer to raze an already completed building. In 1988, the New York State Court of Appeals backed the city’s decision to raze the top 12 floors of a 31-story apartment building at 96th Street just off Park Avenue which had exceeded its allowable height after a series of mistakes made by city employees and the developer. At the time, it was believed to be the first time in New York City that construction workers had demolished the top floors of a fully built project.

More than three decades have passed since that unusual case. Opponents are hoping 200 Amsterdam will be another one for the history books.

“This will fix the public policy so they can’t do this,” Raudenbush said at the press conference, motioning to the busy construction site. “We had a huge victory, but in the meantime, the vanguard example continues to be built.”

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the developer SJP Properties issued the following statement:

"200 Amsterdam fully conforms with all zoning laws, as previously upheld by both the DOB and the BSA, the two city agencies with the primary responsibility for interpreting NYC's zoning codes. The opposition has resorted to applying political pressure while overlooking the last 40 years of zoning history, during which several buildings have been built and occupied under the exact same zoning standards. We are confident that New York City's agencies will continue to apply the law in a fair manner that respects the rights of all without seeking to change the rules retroactively, after a project is already underway. We continue to make construction progress and look forward to delivering a building that will significantly benefit the neighborhood and New York City. This project is expected to generate over $100 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years that will be used for badly needed infrastructure and service upgrades to the benefit of the entire city, all while creating a significant number of New York City jobs.”

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