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City Council Hears Final Round of Community Input on Riverside Center

By Leslie Albrecht | November 23, 2010 6:59pm

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — The public got its last chance Tuesday to weigh in on Riverside Center, the massive complex that Extell Development Company wants to build on the largest piece of vacant property left on the Upper West Side.

The City Council subcommittee on zoning and franchises heard more than four hours of testimony on the project, which would bring five high-rises, stores, a hotel, a movie theater, a parking garage and an auto showroom to eight acres stretching between West 59th Street, West 61st Street, West End Avenue and Riverside Boulevard.

The land is now an abandoned rail yard and parking lot.

Tuesday's hearing covered much of the same territory as previous public meetings on Riverside Center, with community members asking Extell to make changes to the project including eliminating one of the buildings,  making at least 20 percent of the housing "affordable," and building a 150,000 square-foot school.

A model of Extell's Riverside Center, left, and Community Board 7 members Mel Wymore, Ethel Sheffer and Mark Diller at Tuesday's City Council subcommittee hearing.
A model of Extell's Riverside Center, left, and Community Board 7 members Mel Wymore, Ethel Sheffer and Mark Diller at Tuesday's City Council subcommittee hearing.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

In response, Extell president Gary Barnett gave his usual answer: he's bowed to several community demands, but if he makes too many concessions, Riverside Center will never be built because it will cost him too much.

"It doesn't do anybody any good to approve a project and then not be able to build it," Barnett said.

Barnett said he couldn't budge on requests to eliminate one of the high-rises because it would make the project "economically infeasible."

Likewise, Barnett said a request to move an auto showroom off West End Avenue could deal a death blow to Riverside Center. Barnett said auto dealers are only interested in locating on West End Avenue, and that the showroom would be crucial income generator in the early stages of construction.

"It's the key to the project going forward," Barnett said.

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer and Community Board 7 chair Mel Wymore stuck to their guns too, both saying that while the community wants to see the site developed, Riverside Center must serve the needs of the Upper West Side.

Brewer insisted that Extell make up to 30 percent of the housing at Riverside Center permanently affordable to people with lower incomes.

Developers are sometimes allowed to build affordable units in other parts of the city, away from their market-rate housing, but Brewer said she wants all of Riverside Center's affordable housing to be "on-site."

"We want a neighborhood that is mixed," Brewer said. "We don't want an all high-income neighborhood, that's why we want it on-site," Brewer said to a smattering of applause in the packed hearing room.

Wymore noted that Riverside Center will be built on the last piece of undeveloped property on the Upper West Side.

"We've seen an awful lot of development in the last 20 years, and we've become experts in what works and what doesn't work," Wymore said.

What works, said Wymore, is creating an "integrated" development, "such that the community doesn't see Riverside Center as an exclusive enclave or a village within the community."

Behind the scenes, Brewer, Wymore and other members of Community Board 7 are in negotiations with Extell about proposed changes at the site, including creating more open space and less density.

In the coming weeks, they'll discuss the school and affordable housing, said Wymore.

"We continue to inch forward in creating a project that works for the developer and the community," Wymore said. "Every conversation is a baby step forward."

Wymore said negotiations will likely continue until the full City Council votes on Riverside Center in December.

Community Board 7 released a 50-page set of recommended modifications when it voted to reject the project in July.

"There are some things in there that we're working with them on that we're trying to adjust, and obviously there are some things in there that we can't give, and some things in there that they never expected us to give," Barnett said of Community Board 7's recommendations.