Judge throws cold water on Extell’s UWS condo development

Ruling voids city permit for tower, arguing developer “thumbed its nose at the rules”

Extell's Gary Barnett and a rendering of 50 West 66th Street (Courtesy of Snøhetta)
Extell's Gary Barnett and a rendering of 50 West 66th Street (Courtesy of Snøhetta)

A New York judge has chided Extell Development for attempting to extend the height of its proposed Upper West Side condo using mechanical voids, characterizing the plan as a “blatant jacking-up of close to 200 feet.”

In a decision handed down Friday in New York’s state Supreme Court, Justice Arthur Engoron voided a city-issued permit to build the 775-foot high tower at 50 West 66th Street, arguing the plan could not be reconciled with zoning rules.

The decision marks yet another setback in the long-running battle over the controversial development, and comes after Extell brought on a co-developer in July.

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Gary Barnett, Lars Windhorst and 50 West 66th Street (Getty, Extell)
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Last January, the city’s Department of Buildings ordered Extell to amend its plans for the site after determining that large swaths of the building containing empty space would violate zoning laws. When the updated plans were accepted, preservation group Landmark West launched an appeal to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which found in favor of the developer this January.

The City Club of New York also filed a separate lawsuit over zoning complaints, hoping to halt construction.

Justice Engoron last week sided with the club, stating that while the case might seem complicated on its face, it was really quite straightforward.

“No sane system of city planning, and no sane system of judicial adjudication, would allow developers to end-run around height-limits by including in buildings gargantuan mechanical spaces that may not even contain mechanical equipment and have no purpose other than to augment height beyond otherwise legal limits,” he wrote.

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The developer, he said, had “simply thumbed its nose at the rules.”

However, a spokesperson for Extell said in a statement that the court’s decision “overturns a unanimous, well-reasoned decision of the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), the expert body which correctly concluded that Extell’s building plan complies with all applicable zoning regulations.”

Extell plans to appeal the decision. The city’s Law Department is “evaluating the city’s legal options,” according to spokesman Nicholas Paolucci.

John Low-Beer, a lawyer for the City Club, told Gothamist that the ruling was a wake-up call for regulators.

“In recent years, the city agencies charged with enforcing the zoning resolution have been too ready to endorse the stratagems of property developers who stretch its text past its breaking point,” he said.

Mechanical voids, which are designed to hold mechanical equipment, have become an easy way for developers to boost towers higher into the sky, offering the promise of breathtaking views without having to fill the entire building with units.

In a judgment that shifted in tone between firm and faintly bemused, Justice Engoron said the voids proposed at Extell’s tower — which would have rendered it the tallest building on the Upper West Side — “would be ingenious if they were not so transparent.”

“The word ‘chutzpah’ comes to mind,” he added.