The Real Deal New York

This month in real estate history

The Real Deal looks back at some of New York's biggest real estate stories

October 10, 2007

1992: First NYC building shortened for zoning

In October of 1992, Buildings Department officials released the details of a plan to lop 12 stories off the top of a building in the city’s first action to reduce a skyscraper’s height. The 31-story condominium at 108 East 96th Street had been stuck in a legal battle for five years after its plans were incorrectly approved by the Department of Buildings, resulting in a monumental zoning violation.

The structure was completed in 1985, before Civitas, a neighborhood group, notified the city that the Upper East Side zoning district only allowed for a 19-story building. According to the developer, Laurence Ginsberg, an “erroneous zoning map,” misleading both the project’s architects and DOB officials, allowed the building’s height to exceed restrictions.

After being fitted with a wire mesh and netting cocoon and scaffolding, Big Apple Wrecking began the $1 million demolition, razing the floors at the rate of one per week.

The majority of the work was performed by a remote-controlled chiseling robot that works “somewhat like a woodpecker boring into a tree,” according to Vahe Tiryakian, a city spokesperson. Once the building was pared down to legal height, Ginsberg built a 19-story addition next door to compensate for lost space. Ginsberg estimated the whole process added about $6 million to the cost of the $27 million project. He called it a “painful way to correct a mistake on a zoning map.”

1981: Red Hook rebounds with container port opening

This fall just over 25 years ago, Red Hook was undergoing a period of gentrification concurrent with the first operating season of the Port Authority’s Red Hook Container Terminal, following decades of hard times for the area. Red Hook’s boundaries had once extended farther into Brooklyn. The area was divided up in the 1960s with the construction of the Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, parceling the neighborhood into what are now Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens. These three areas are more accessible by transportation and underwent economic growth that surpassed present-day Red Hook. With the opening of the container port in 1981, a large number of skilled-labor openings brought new residents, who were generally wealthier than the second- and third-generation working-class immigrants who’d filled the neighborhood in its rougher years.

At the same time, a section of row houses next to the waterfront known then as “the Back” was seeing a wave of artists seeking cheap rents and good views, as well as real estate speculators following suit. A public housing project also broke ground on Columbia Street in December of 1981, and the Office of Economic Development announced plans to develop an open-air pushcart market in the area.

1952: NYU plans largest university expansion plan

Fifty-five years ago this month, New York University announced a $102 million expansion plan, then the country’s largest development program for a private university.

The plan called for 14 new buildings at five campus centers in Manhattan and the Bronx, as well as retiring the debt from the recently constructed Law Center. The spending splurge also provided for the expansion of two existing buildings and the completion of an unfinished building.

For the Washington Square campus, the plan proposed a $5.3 million library, now called the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, which was completed in 1973. Warren Weaver Hall, housing classrooms, was completed in 1975 under the plan, as were two $3.5 million dormitories, including Weinstein Hall on University Place. In May of 1964, the school announced that it would hire renowned architect Philip Johnson to create a master plan for the Washington Square Campus. However, only his plans for Bobst Library were realized.

Compiled by James Kelly

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