Upper East Siders grappled on Tuesday, Jan. 24 with the controversy that has been brewing at 150 East 91st Street, where Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s plan for a new building doesn’t include a spacious 15-foot light well that used to exist on the property. Neighbors living in the co-op at 160 East 91st Street are imploring Redeemer to honor the remnant of the past with a more modest 5-foot setback, which they say would keep their apartments livable.
“We are not greedy,” said Meenakshi Rao, a resident of the pre-war apartment building, during a Community Board 8 Zoning and Development Committee meeting over Zoom. Manny Gordon, another resident, said his bedroom, with a window facing the property line, would become a “jail cell or coffin” if construction up to that threshold moves forward.
But the project is “fully as of right, and permitted and approved,” according to Redeemer’s attorney, Nicholas David. He previously told Our Town that the church selected the property because Department of Buildings regulations allow for construction on “the full lot size.” The purchase was made in 2020 for $29.5 million.
Redeemer representatives were invited to the Jan. 24 meeting, according to Elizabeth Ashby, the committee’s co-chair, but after initially accepting, they were said to have asked for the meeting to be pushed to February. CB8’s Zoning and Development Committee members heard from concerned residents of 160 East 91st Street that evening anyway, because Ashby said the issue could become “moot” next month, depending on when construction begins.
Is It A Community Board Issue?
An overwhelming majority of committee members voted in favor of a resolution supporting further negotiation between invested parties at the two Upper East Side properties. “CB8 supports the efforts of the residents of 160 East 91st Street to have sufficient light and air to ensure the habitability of the apartments” with windows facing the property line shared with 150 East 91st Street, a draft of the resolution states in part.
But some drew a line with how deeply CB8 could intervene. “We don’t stop people from building as of right,” CB8 member Adam Wald said. He warned that the community board might not be the “proper forum for a private dispute.”
“You have a very big uphill fight,” CB8 member Michele Birnbaum chimed in.
Others offered advice for finetuning residents’ pleas. Elizabeth Rose suggested that complaints about how construction would impact the value of residents’ apartments weakened their overall argument. Up until now, concern about a possible plummet in the desirability of apartments in the co-op has been one focal point of residents’ grievances.
What’s At Stake
Rose added that the extra-wide light well, constructed when different zoning laws were in place, was an “ancillary benefit” from a bygone era.
But residents at 160 East 91st Street have remained steadfast in their complaints that construction right up to the property line, leaving only a three-foot indent on their side of the threshold, would restrict crucial access to light and air. Aside from quality of life concerns, some fear for their safety egressing via fire escapes in the event of an emergency.
If not a zoning or legal battle, it’s certainly one of appearances. “In the court of public opinion, this is not going to look great for Redeemer,” said John Speer, a 160 East 91st Street resident and shareholder.
“You have a very big uphill fight.” CB8 member Michele Birnbaum