By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Extell's Riverside Center cleared a key hurdle Wednesday, winning approval — and high praise — from the city Planning Commission.
Commissioners voted 12-1 in favor of the five-building mixed use development, which means it now heads to the City Council for a final yay or nay. That vote is expected to happen in roughly two months.
The Planning Commission's vote marked a change in tone from prior public meetings about Riverside Center, with commissioners lauding the project as an opportunity to reinvent the Upper West Side. Previous public meetings have featured heavy criticism of the project from area residents, which some say will be an exclusive enclave for the rich that will do little to enhance the Upper West Side.
Planning commission chair Amanda Burden called Riverside Center "a unique opportunity to re-envision and reshape a bleak eight-acre parking lot and former rail yard as an exciting addition and major amenity to this thriving West Side neighborhood."
Extell wants to build Riverside Center on a piece of land situated between West 59th Street and West 61st Street, with Riverside Boulevard to the west and West End Avenue to the east. The development will include five residential towers, retail space, an underground parking garage and auto showroom.
Burden singled out Riverside Center's "distinctive and compelling" architecture and "thoughtfully designed public realm" as two of her favorite aspects.
She wasn't the only commissioner with kind words for Riverside Center. "This project, when completed, will be an exciting addition the New York landscape," said commissioner Richard Eaddy.
Commissioner Anna Levin cast the only no vote. Levin said she's concerned that the development "is just too big" and that Extell hasn't done enough to build a school to accommodate the children the development will bring to the neighborhood.
Some Upper West Side parents and Community Board 7 have called on Extell to build a 150,000-square-foot, K-8 school at the site, but so far the developer has only committed to paying for the outer shell of a 75,000 square-foot school.
Extell president Gary Barnett has said that building an entire school could add $35 to $40 million to the cost of the development. He's warned that adding too many concessions could make the project too expensive to build.
Commissioner Karen Phillips said she cast a "reluctant" yes vote, because she wants to see more affordable housing at Riverside Center.
"Providing more units for middle-income New Yorkers ensures that the character of this area better reflects the character of the Upper West Side," Phillips said.
Extell spokesman George Arzt said in a statement that the developer was "immensely gratified" by the Planning Commission's approval. "We are equally thankful for the laudatory words of support from commission members," Arzt said.