Unfriending mega-development on the UES

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Community advocates organize in opposition to super-tall projects


  • Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts and the Municipal Art Society are organizing against super-tall towers. Illustration courtesy of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts.


With an expected spike of construction following the opening of the Second Avenue subway line, opponents of large developments are mobilizing.

On Saturday, May 13, around 25 people attended a three-hour workshop on how to advocate for what organizers called the preservation of the Upper East Side. The workshop, titled “Attack of the Killer Megatowers,” was organized by Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts and the Municipal Art Society.

“A couple years ago, Friends started to think seriously about potential upcoming changes that were going to affect the character of our neighborhood,” said Rachel Levy, executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. “We were witnessing with alarm the rise of as-of-right supertowers in midtown to our south. And we wondered what if this accidental skyline would start creeping its way up our avenues and what that would mean for our neighborhood.”

The Second Avenue subway, and the development that is expected to follow, as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal of dramatically expanding affordable housing concerned the Friends group. Levy said that although the proposed zoning changes are a worthy priority, they also threaten to lift in one fell swoop many of the protective zoning measures that had been in place for decades.

Franny Eberhart, president of Friends’ board of directors, said the Upper East Side’s livability, sense of place and quality of life were threatened if development were to continue unchecked.

Urban planner George Janes, who was recently hired to help challenge the construction of a building on the Upper West Side, said he became interested in the rising heights of towers while watching the construction of 432 Park Ave. Completed in 2015, 432 Park Ave. is the tallest residential building in the world.

“I was just like you when I saw this going up,” Janes said. “It just kept going up — I was like, ‘Oh, it must be done by now’ — no, it just kept going up. I was astounded at how tall it got. It became one of these things where I thought, ‘I’ve got to figure out how this happened.’”

Janes said the fruits of community advocates’ labor to reign in development can be seen in changes to the Upper East Side zoning map over the years.

“If you look at a zoning map, it looks really complicated,” Janes said. “If you go uptown, if you to east Harlem, central Harlem — the zoning map is simple. It’s like one district cover vast areas of central and east Harlem. The reason why is this community has advocated a generation to effect changes.”

These changes wouldn’t have happened without advocacy at the local level, Janes said.

“That kind of advocacy just doesn’t happen Uptown,” Janes said. “It’s people like you that effect these changes.”

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