One of the skyscraper critics that won a shocking ruling against an Upper West Side condo project last week said it has no plans to take other towers to court, despite a claim by the developer’s attorney that many buildings are threatened by the decision.
According to the Municipal Art Society — the longtime advocacy organization fighting what it calls New York’s “accidental skyline” — SJP Properties’ tower at 200 Amsterdam Avenue represents a unique case that would not easily apply to other buildings.
“Part of the reason that we entered this lawsuit is because we thought it was extremely unusual,” said Municipal Art Society President Elizabeth Goldstein. “And the point here is to try to send a clarion call — which I think the judge has done — that this approach to zoning-lot mergers is illegal and inappropriate.”
The Municipal Art Society had joined with the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development to sue the developers of 200 Amsterdam. They scored a huge victory Feb. 13 when a state judge found the city should not have allowed SJP and development partner Mitsui Fudosan America to build the 668-foot project on a gerrymandered, 39-sided zoning lot.
The ruling could force the developers to deconstruct 20 floors of the project, although they are hopeful that it will be overturned on appeal.
Kramer Levin attorney Paul Selver, who is representing the project, disputed that the method used to build 200 Amsterdam — a 668-foot tower that topped out last summer — was particularly unusual.
He told The Real Deal this week that the Lincoln Square Synagogue and Tishman Speyer’s MetLife Building at 200 Park Avenue were two of about 20 other projects using partial tax lots, which he framed as a common practice throughout the city.
“I don’t know that the MAS has done their homework on this issue,” he said. “We have.”
A spokesperson for the advocacy group noted that the comparison to existing buildings was part of the case and were taken into consideration by the judge. And Goldstein stood by her assertion that the Upper West Side tower used an extraordinary process to be built as large as it is.
“We don’t think there are a lot of these,” she said. “In fact, the defendants in the case argued that there were many of these but frankly could not cite very many.”
Opponents of other towers throughout the city have gotten a burst of optimism from the court ruling, which they believe will set a precedent to prevent similar zoning lots in the future, but Goldstein stressed that MAS has no plans to use it as the basis for lawsuits against other towers it opposes.
“Lawsuits are one of a huge set of tools that MAS and many other advocacy organizations use,” she said. “It’s the one we reserve for the most extreme cases because it is both expensive in terms of real dollars but also in terms of time, so we don’t choose to do this except in extreme circumstances.”
But Selver said the advocacy group’s lack of interest in taking this fight to other buildings showed that its only real concern throughout the case has been how tall 200 Amsterdam would be.
“They only cared about 200 Amsterdam and the height of 200 Amsterdam,” he said, “and the rest of this was just a cover.”
Goldstein pointed out that MAS’ case concerned the bulk, not the height of the tower — and jabbed back at the builders, saying, “If the developers would prefer to sheer enough bulk off the sides of 200 Amsterdam to bring it into compliance with the zoning resolution, they have our blessing.”
With two levels of appeals courts, it could be a year before the case is decided. Until then, a number of people who signed contracts to purchase units on floors that might have to be taken down are in limbo.
They will get no sympathy from the Upper West Siders fighting the development.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Committee for Environmentally Sound Development President Olive Freud. She predicted that an appeal would amount to the developers “just wasting money.”