By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — The Planning Commission got an earful about the controversial Riverside Center development at a marathon hearing Wednesday, where more than 150 people showed up to voice concerns — and some approval — over the five-tower development.
After months of public criticism of Riverside Center, Wednesday's hearing featured something rare: several people who spoke up in favor of the development, which they said would transform a deserted stretch of the west side into a real neighborhood.
Extell Development Company wants to build the mixed use complex of apartment high-rises and stores on an eight-acre piece of land between West 59th Street, West 61st Street, West End Avenue and Riverside Boulevard.
Right now it's a parking lot and abandoned rail yard.
The Planning Commission will vote on the project later this fall, then it goes to the City Council for a final yay or nay. Wednesday's meeting was a chance for the commission to hear testimony on the project.
Extell's president Gary Barnett defended the project, saying Riverside Center will turn an "old parking lot" into a "vibrant community with world-class architecture."
But he warned that a still-weak economy makes building financial difficult, and said community demands for changes to the project could "kill" Riverside Center.
Community Board 7 and Borough President Scott Stringer have asked Extell for more affordable housing, less density and a commitment to build a 150,000 square-foot school.
Community input also forced Extell to drop plans for a Costco, which Barnett said threatened Riverside Center's economic viability.
But community members argued that Extell isn't doing enough to offset the impacts of Riverside Center, which could bring as many as 3,000 new housing units to the Upper West Side.
"I'm tired of building after building after building going up without consideration of the impact it has on our schools," said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, co-president of the P.S. 199 Parent Teacher Association. "We cannot afford to see this development go up without sufficient school space."
Barnett said building the 150,000 square foot school community members want could add $35 to $40 million to his costs.
City Councilwoman Gale Brewer stressed that Riverside Center will be built on the last significant piece of vacant land on the Upper West Side.
"We shouldn't forget that, because it's all we've got left," Brewer said. "We need to do it right."
Some said they can't wait for Extell to get started on Riverside Center.
Steve Ganz, a real estate broker who lives in nearby Riverside South, said his family has to leave the area when they want to go shopping or out to eat.
Riverside Center would bring sorely needed retail amenities, he said.
"This is really an opportunity to make Riverside South its own neighborhood, not just a gateway to the Upper West Side, or a stop-over from Lincoln Center," Ganz said. "If Extell can't or doesn't build it, I can't see anyone else that would step up to the plate to do it."