With or without grandfather clause, Gamma says 800-foot tower is happening

One option will add several months to the project's timeline

From left: Ben Kallos, rendering of Sutton 58 and Jonathan Kalikow
From left: Ben Kallos, rendering of Sutton 58 and Jonathan Kalikow

One way or another, Gamma Real Estate is confident that it will get to build an 800-foot tower on the Upper East Side. The question is when: If the City Council grandfathers the project, the developer can avoid a rezoning and continue working on the project uninterrupted. If not, Gamma will head to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA). The latter option will add several months to the project’s timeline.

Jonathan Kalikow, Gamma’s co-founder and president, testified on Monday at a zoning and franchises subcommittee hearing that the completion of his Sutton Place project is inevitable. If the developer can show the BSA that the bulk of the project’s foundation is complete, Gamma will likely avoid the rezoning. Under city law, if excavation is complete and “substantial progress made on the foundations,” the project won’t have to abide by the zoning change.

Kalikow said the foundation for Sutton 58, a condominium tower planned for East 58th Street, will be complete in three weeks. Still, he noted that an appeal could take five or six months, imperiling hundreds of construction workers’ jobs.

“The only upshot of removing the grandfathering clause would be to punish us monetarily but also to displace and furlough a bunch of workers who really don’t deserve it,” he said.

Anthony Austin, an employee of Lendlease, which is the general contractor on the site, noted that a shutdown of the site would dramatically impact his family.

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“It would technically stop my life,” he said at the hearing. “If it stops me, it stops my wife, it stops my kids. It stops my grandkids.”

Last week, the City Planning Commission approved a controversial rezoning of 10 blocks in Sutton Place but included a clause that would exempt Gamma’s project from the change. Local Council member Ben Kallos, who is a co-sponsor of the rezoning application, is pushing to have the grandfather clause removed before the full council votes on the measure. The rezoning will impose “tower on a base” standards in the area, which means that 45 to 50 percent of a building would need to be built below 150 feet.

Kallos said the grandfather clause might be a “red herring” for extending the rezoning process for another two weeks or so. A change to the application, like removing the clause, would send the measure back to City Planning for review, giving Gamma more time to complete the foundation.

The developer raced to beat the rezoning. Records filed with the Department of Buildings indicate that the city has consistently approved after-hour construction permits for the project for nearly every Saturday since June 3.

Those who support and oppose the rezoning both believe the application’s outcome has the power to set a dangerous precedent. Gamma argues that the effort amounts to spot zoning and will have a chilling effect on construction in the city, rendering “as-of-right” a meaningless concept. The East River Fifties Alliance, a coalition of residents of 45 buildings who filed the rezoning application, maintain that the change is meant to preserve the character of an area where a majority of the buildings range from 16 to 20 stories tall.

“People are extremely aware and concerned about the overdevelopment of supertall buildings,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, who also signed on to ERFA’s application. “Once you establish a precedent that’s out of context, they start popping up everywhere.”