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Sutton Place Plan to Cap Building Heights Gives City Planners Pause

By Shaye Weaver | June 7, 2017 11:49am
 The East River 50s Alliance is proposing to cap building heights at 260 feet.
The East River 50s Alliance is proposing to cap building heights at 260 feet.
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East River 50s Alliance

SUTTON PLACE — Locals' bid for a zoning change to block super-tall skyscrapers in Sutton Place is undergoing formal public review after a year-and-a-half of planning — but city officials are concerned it could discourage affordable housing in the area.

On Monday, the City Planning Commission began its review of the zoning proposal, which would ban any commercial development between East 52nd and 59th streets east of First Avenue, except for “community uses” such as medical offices and day care centers. It would also impose a height cap limiting any new development to 260 feet, and mandate that 13 percent of any new development be dedicated to below-market-rate housing in exchange for bonus Floor Area Ratio (FAR).

The proposal comes after plans were filed by the Bauhouse Group for a 900-foot skyscraper at 430 E. 58th St. in 2015, though the proposal later fell through.

Residents of 45 buildings totaling more than 2,000 individuals have supported the zoning plan, elected officials said.

"The community has won a major victory with the certification of our rezoning proposal to stop the march of super-scrapers and build more affordable housing in residential neighborhoods," said Councilman Ben Kallos, who supports the proposal with other local elected officials. "While I am disappointed with how long it took to certify, it is better late than never."

Robert Shepler, co-chairman of the The East River 50s Alliance Leadership Committee, which is behind the effort, said that developers in Sutton Place are not required to contribute to the city’s affordable housing goals.

"Nor do supertalls do much to address the City’s need for additional market rate units because they produce fewer apartments — often for absentee owners — than more modestly scaled buildings with comparable square footage," he said.

► Sutton Place Plan to Cap Skyscraper Heights Sent to City for Review

The Department of City Planning must allow for public review on every application that is deemed complete, officials said. But agency chairwoman Marisa Lago expressed some "serious reservations" during a hearing on Monday about the appropriateness of the proposed height limit and whether the rezoning would discourage developers from building housing, including affordable units, in the area.

If there's a requirement for developers to provide a certain amount of affordable housing to earn more square footage, it's less likely they will take that chance, she noted.

"The department believes that the current R10 zoning district is appropriate due to its current built form, due to its current proximity to the city's largest commercial business district and the neighborhood's access to mass transit," she said during the hearing.

"The rezoning area is narrowly drawn, excluding numerous buildings that rise higher than 260 feet on nearby blocks, like The Sovereign at 485 feet tall located across the street from a block where height limits would apply. This would effectively be a down-zoning, discouraging the production of market-rate housing, which in turn, makes affordable housing creation less likely."

Jonathan Kalikow, president of Gamma Real Estate, which is building Sutton 58, an 850-foot residential tower at 430 E. 58th St., said construction of the building would be stopped if the zoning change is approved.

"[The East River 50s Alliance's] application is nothing more than a gimmick to protect the special interests of a group of Sutton Place residents, many of whom reside at The Sovereign, a 485-foot tall luxury residential building directly adjacent to our project," he said in a statement. 

"Moreover, this proposal would reduce the construction of market-rate and affordable housing by discouraging the utilization of the Inclusionary Housing Program. Under [The East River 50s Alliance's] watch, the city’s housing shortage and affordability crisis will only worsen."

The Alliance is hosting a town hall meeting Thursday to give an update on the application, which will take place at 8 a.m. at Morso, 420 E. 59th St.

A number of elected officials are also hosting a forum Thursday night from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House at 331 E. 70th St.