Wednesday, August 27, 2008

For Sale: Nonprofit Sites = Air Rights

Today, the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) gave a green light to Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI)—and to all nonprofit and religious institutions seeking to turn the air above their sites into luxury condo revenue streams, even where laws designed to protect neighborhood character and property values explicitly restrict it. CSI’s planned development project is located in the R8B-zoned, low-scale, brownstone midblock of West 70th Street, adjacent to the Individual Landmark Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District.

With its unanimous approval of 7 zoning height and setback variances, the BSA bowed to CSI’s argument that denial of its application to construct 5 floors of luxury condominiums on top of a new 4-story community house would interfere with its charitable mission and impose an economic hardship on this congregation (one of the wealthiest in the city, counting among its members Jack Rudin, the developer for the St. Vincent’s Hospital project in Greenwich Village). In other words, CSI says, “Back off, City, we’re a nonprofit and nonprofits can do whatever they want.” The (mayor-appointed) BSA rolled over, despite CSI’s repeated failure over many months of public hearings to demonstrate hardship or any link between its mission and the condos (to be sold on the open market for millions).

Contextual zoning is a ceiling developers have been pushing against for decades. And now, 5 floors or 50 floors, the sky’s the limit for nonprofits with properties in traditional, low-rise communities in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan.

We know all this commotion over a 9-story, 114-foot-tall building sounds alarmist (even though it is double the size of the 4- and 5-story brownstones that define 95% of the historic West 70th Street midblock). But, even as we speak, the BSA is also poised to approve Mount Sinai Medical Center’s proposed development including a 542-foot-tall (the equivalent of 54 stories) residential tower on the eastern edge of Central Park. Meanwhile, planners have identified 10 potential development “soft sites” along Central Park West, many occupied by low-rise institutions such as the New-York Historical Society (which, until recently, had planned a 280-foot-tall tower that would have required special zoning exemptions).

It doesn't take a microscope to spot this trend, which could have even greater ramifications in the other boroughs. With today's approval, the BSA has opened the door to luxury condos towering over nonprofits in every previously protected neighborhood in the city. And their decision is final. Except for court. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Circulated August 7, 2008

A Day for Family and Community Pride

On Saturday, August 9th, LANDMARK WEST! will join with residents of Amsterdam Houses for "Family Day," a celebration of community, family, food, fun, music, and much more. As part of this all-day festival, we'll be organizing art activities for children and leading a walking tour for residents of Amsterdam Houses (West 61st to 65th Streets, between Amsterdam and West End Avenues), focusing on its special place in the history of socially conscious public housing, with an emphasis on open space and good urban design. (Designed by a team including Grosvenor Atterbury, Harvey Wiley Corbett, Arthur Holden, Gilmore D. Clarke and Michael Rapuano, Amsterdam Houses is included on LW!'s Wish List of priorities for future landmark designation.)

To commemorate this special day, one-man band Mark Foley of Volunteer Music will premiere Amsterdam Houses, Rise," a new song which draws on the history and spirit of Amsterdam Houses. He will also delight young residents with his Children's Concert.

The "Family Day" epicenter is Bennerson Park and 64th Street, which will be closed between Amsterdam and West End Avenues. If you're around the neighborhood on Saturday from 12 noon to 7 PM, stop by, say hello, and join in the party!

Circulated July 9, 2008

Circulated June 25, 2008
Congregation Shearith Israel: Ready the Floodgates

No Decision on Congregation Shearith Israel, But Ready the Floodgates
Yesterday, Tuesday, June 24, the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) voted to close the hearing on Congregation Shearith Israel’s application for 7 zoning variances to construct 5 floors of luxury condominiums on top of a new community house on the brownstone midblock of West 70th Street (adjacent to the Landmark Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District).
This means that the BSA is poised to make its decision, but only after giving Shearith Israel yet one more chance to clarify and substantiate the record in support of its application – another “do-over”. YOU HAVE ONE LAST CHANCE TO BE HEARD! Send BSA the message, loud and clear, that the public expects them to stand up and defend the laws that keep our communities whole. See below for contact information and specific points that you can make. And while you’re at it, please contact NYS Senator Tom Duane and NYS Assembly Member Richard Gottfried to thank them for their stalwart support on this issue.
Quite frankly, it doesn’t look promising for those of us (in every neighborhood, every borough, all throughout the city) who care about zoning, landmarks and other sound land-use laws. And things seem to be looking up for developers (all too often non-profits) eager to capitalize on loosened zoning regulations. If the BSA approves Shearith Israel’s application, it will be open season for non-profits seeking to finance themselves through out-of-scale development. All along Central Park West, there are as many as 10 potential development sites (New-York Historical Society included) watching this application closely, waiting to see if this “canary in the mine” lives or dies.
Here’s some advice: wander into Central Park for a concert or play one summer night soon. Look at the sweep of the Central Park West skyline silhouetted against the sunset. Then write your letter. Remember, this is why we fight – so that we don’t continue to lose the treasures that make life in New York City not just tolerable but uplifting. Imagine.
Mail/fax your letters to:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
City Hall
New York, NY 10007
Fax: 212-788-2460

Hon. Meenakshi Srinivasan
Chair, NYC Board of Standards and Appeals
40 Rector Street, 9th Floor
New York, NY 10006
Fax: 212-788-8769

Hon. Gale A. Brewer
NY City Council
250 Broadway
New York, NY 10007
Fax: 212-513-7717

Hon. Scott Stringer
Manhattan Borough President
1 Centre Street, 19th Floor
New York, NY 10007
Fax: 212-669-4900

Please say “Thank you!” to:

Hon. Thomas K. Duane
New York State Senate

Hon. Richard N. Gottfried
New York State Assembly

And please send copies of your letters to LANDMARK WEST! at 212-875-0209 (fax) or

Some points to keep in mind:

  • Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI) has made it clear in its papers and previous testimony that the purpose of the luxury condos is to pay for the new community house. This is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. Approving these 7 variances would open the floodgates for other non-profit institutions seeking zoning exemption to finance their programs and benefit their own members, essentially transferring wealth from the surrounding community to themselves.
  • There is nothing unusual or physically unique about the Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI) site. Approving variances in this case sends the message that landmark designation, contextual zoning and a property owner’s non-profit (already tax-exempt) status constitute “hardships” that justify exemption from the land-use laws that apply to everyone else.

  • CSI is crying “hardship” because it says it cannot satisfy its programmatic needs AND build 5 floors of luxury condominiums on the same midblock site (i.e., have its cake and eat it too) without getting zoning variances. If that isn’t self-created “hardship” we don’t know what is.