Testimony of the Real Estate Board of New York Before the New York City Council in Opposition to East River Fifties Alliance's Proposed Rezoning

The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is a trade association with over 17,000 members comprised of owners, builders, residential and commercial brokers, managers, lenders, and other real estate professionals active in New York City.

REBNY opposes the proposed rezoning application filed jointly by the East River Fifties Alliance (ERFA), the Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Councilmembers Ben Kallos and Daniel Garodnick, and State Senator Liz Krueger.

This is the second application by this group of applicants with the sole purpose being to block the construction of a new as-of-right residential building that may block the river views of the residents of The Sovereign. The EAS makes this evident as it only identifies one development site — the project currently under construction by Gamma Real Estate. This proposal is another attempt to curtail as-of-right development and is not a part of a well-considered plan. It should be rejected.

Contextual rezonings like those established along Broadway on the Upper West Side and the wide crosstown streets, such as 79th and 86th Streets, were done to ensure that new development reinforced the clear and evident built character on these streets. The proposed rezoning area, in contrast, is comprised of a diverse built form of varying bulk and heights. In fact, the “tower on a base” that the proposed action seeks to impose is the one form that does not exist today in this neighborhood.

This second application seeks to apply the “Packing the Bulk/Tower on the Base” provisions in this neighborhood. When the “Packing the Bulk/Tower on the Base” provisions were introduced on the Upper East Side in the 1990s, it was intended to limit building height by pushing bulk to the base of buildings and limiting air rights transfers, especially on smaller sites which could not satisfy the base requirements of packing. At least when that proposal was introduced a legitimate claim could be made that it was regulating the built form for a large section of the community. It was not targeting and trying to stop a single project.

Thirty years later, this neighborhood maintains that they are the only neighborhood without additional restrictions in R10. One explanation is that it was the intention of planners at the time not to impose such de facto height limits on this neighborhood in part because of its proximity to the East River waterfront. Also, it is not an acceptable planning rationale, as this community has claimed, to say that simply because they do not have this additional restriction they should in order to be consistent. Consistency is not a planning justification.

This proposal would negatively impact affordable housing and light and air. The 14 affordable units that the EAS estimates would be built through the Inclusionary Housing Bonus would not be built since the development rights would not likely be used under the proposed rezoning. Ironically, the “tower on a base” form being proposed would actually cast larger shadows over longer periods of time than the building the applicants are seeking to block. It is hard to fathom that any community in this city would support a rezoning in which affordable housing is diminished while shadow impacts are worsened.

And finally, REBNY raises the issue of transparency. The City has a responsibility to safeguard the public review process so that all members of the public are notified, have complete information, and have sufficient time and opportunity to voice their views. For this application, the public has been given 16 days to gather information, review all findings, and develop a thoughtful response. By way of contrast, for example, the Theater Subdistrict Fund Text Amendment provided the public 161 days and several public forums from the time of Certification to the City Planning Commission public hearing. The truncated review process for this application is extreme and indefensible. Further, there is the impression of impropriety that the co-applicants of the proposed action manipulated the public review process so as to hasten the review period and limit public comments as much as possible. In view of the unprecedented speed of this application, and in our view the very real threat that it poses to as-of-right development, we think that the Planning Commission’s modification to grandfather the Sutton 58 project was appropriate and necessary for the good of the city.

The City prides itself on the fact that the vast majority of development is as-of-right. Development projects are incredibly complex with numerous moving parts, and it is critical that property owners have a reasonable degree of certainty in the status of the existing zoning. The City should not embolden elected officials and special interest groups to pursue zoning changes to stop developments in the midst of construction that they have an unfavorable opinion about.

ERFA’s proposal is a punitive endeavor that is an unnecessary drain on City resources. It stands in direct contradiction to the City’s stated policy goals of increasing housing production and providing good-paying jobs. ERFA’s proposal will set a dangerous precedent that serves the special interests of a few over the greater good of our city and in no way represents smart, rational planning. We urge the City Council to examine the facts and motive behind this application and reject this proposal. Additionally, we ask that the Council postpone action on this application by an additional 60 days to allow for sufficient public comment.