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Community Advocacy: Recent Victories and Ongoing Battles

On the heels of of the news regarding 200 Amsterdam, we thought this to be a good time to talk to you about zoning and development. First of all, we would like to congratulate our colleagues at the Municipal Art Society and the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development for their incredible win at the New York Supreme Court last week. They are among an increasing number of community-led groups challenging out-of-scale development throughout the five boroughs. The judge's decision to revoke the building permit for 200 Amsterdam Avenue only reinforces what we already know to be true: our voice is powerful!

No Small Victories

Over the past few years, FRIENDS has been actively fighting to close zoning loopholes that allow for overdevelopment in our beloved neighborhood. Gerrymandered zoning lots – such as 200 Amsterdam, lack of floor-to-floor height limit, and excessive mechanical voids are some of the loopholes that allow for tall buildings to be even taller. Consequently, our neighborhood is deprived of light and air and slowly loses the special character we love and hold dear.

Last year we celebrated a significant victory to close these loopholes. The New York City Council voted to amend the 23-16 Zoning Resolution, limiting the height of enclosed mechanical voids in buildings within Manhattan's highest density neighborhoods. We are proud to say our neighborhood is already reaping the benefits of this victory. In December 2019, DOB has required the developer of 249 East 62nd Street to revise its plans in order to comply with our zoning amendment! This addresses only a third of the 150-foot tall void, but, in the words of our first president Halina Rosenthal, "there are no small victories." And we're not done yet.

Image: Municipal Art Society

Same Building, Different Plans

In addition to advocating for sound zoning and land use policies that will encourage reasonable development, FRIENDS is involved in challenges to specific out-of-scale buildings and developments in our neighborhood. One of our most recent challenges, 1059 Third Avenue – the bookend behemoth looming over Treadwell Farm Historic District, brought to our attention an alarming practice of developers in our city: the submission of different sets of plans to regulating city agencies. FRIENDS is appalled that our regulating system does not prevent this from happening, and we have already brought this issue to our elected officials.

The combination of zoning loopholes and submitted plans' discrepancies allowed for 1059 Third Avenue to be ten thousand square feet bigger than zoning permits. Because of our advocacy, the developer was required to reduce the buildings’ floor area! The revised plans are not ideal: floor area was taken from the sides (instead of the top), by adding balconies and doubling the thickness of exterior walls. And guess what? The new plans still don't match! We are currently appealing DOB's approval of the newly submitted plans.

It's About Zoning, not Healthcare

Finally, FRIENDS stands with the Committee to Protect Our Lenox Hill Neighborhood in opposing the proposed development of Lenox Hill Hospital by Northwell Health. We have been participating in the Task Force put together by the Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Keith Powers. We believe that the alternative plan presented is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough! We will continue to repeat our message that this is not a healthcare issue, it is a zoning issue, and we hope that our voice, once again, will be heard!