Scrapping the ‘Tower on Stilts’

Change of direction for controversial building viewed as victory for land use advocates

| 14 Dec 2020 | 10:57

Plans for a controversial Upper East Side “tower on stilts” have been completely scrapped, according to City Council Member Keith Powers.

The long-derided project — a 510-foot residential building at 249 East 62nd Street that included a 150-foot void between its base and top 12 residential floors — was finally put to rest after Zeckendorf Development LLC recently took control of the property, Powers told community members in an email sent Dec. 7.

“They do not believe the former proposal complied with zoning, and the open void proposed was not likely buildable,” Powers said in the email. “They have completely gotten rid of the old plan.”

After fire safety concerns initially halted the project’s progress in March 2019, this new change in direction is being viewed as a victory by land use advocates in the neighborhood who had originally been the driving force in pushing the city to crack down on the use of mechanical voids — which are large and mostly empty spaces within buildings that in theory are meant to store mechanical equipment, but in practice are used to inflate the height, views and market value of the floors above. The Department of City planning has since adopted a zoning amendment that caps the height of voids at 25 feet, and the inclusion of any void taller than 25 feet would count toward the residential building’s total floor area.

“The original proposal for 249 East 62nd Street included a massive mechanical void, taking advantage of a loophole the City Council voted overwhelmingly to close last year,” Powers said in a statement. “I’ve been working with my colleagues on this issue since I took office, and am grateful to neighbors who voiced concerns. I look forward to reviewing a new proposal for the site.”

“Very Welcome News”

Indeed, no new designs have materialized as of yet, but according to what Powers told constituents, Zeckendorf has hired INC Developers to draw up those plans. He also said the new building is expected to be about 330 feet tall and include 30 floors of condominiums, which he characterized as “equivalent to most new buildings in the area.”

“This seems like very welcome news,” Powers wrote in the email.

According to Department of Building records, Zeckendorf has yet to file paperwork indicating the company as the operators of the site at 249 East 62nd Street. In June 2020, an amendment was filed to the original new building application from 2016 that reflected a similar height and number of floors to the figures Zeckendorf gave to Powers; however, this amendment listed Dart Interests as the property owner and James Davidson of SLICE Architects, LLP as a new registered architect. SLCE never filed drawings or zoning documents to DOB.

Both Dart Interests and Zeckendorf did not respond to requests for comment.

Although they are still waiting on clear plans for 62nd Street, advocates and community members feel optimistic that the project will be a better fit for the neighborhood.

“The misguided Jetsons-esque condo on stilts proposal for 249 East 62nd Street catalyzed FRIENDS’ work to put a stop to height-boosting zoning loopholes, and spurred the Department of City Planning, the Fire Department, and the Mayor into action,” Rachel Levy of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts said in a statement. “Together with Council Members Keith Powers and Ben Kallos, and Borough President Gale Brewer, we’ve been fighting this building for over three years. An avenue building that conforms to zoning means that common sense has prevailed, which is enormously gratifying, and a welcome result for the community.”

Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents a neighboring district, said the original building plans being thrown out was a result of a job well done by community activists.

“The history of real estate in our city is developers getting away with things until somebody finally speaks out,” said Kallos. “The idea of just putting buildings on stilts to get better and better views, without actually building any housing in between, was just the most cynical thing I’ve ever seen. So if a new developer has come in who’s going to build real housing for real New Yorkers, I’ll support it.”

Battle Against Supertalls

George Janes, who filed the original zoning challenge to the project on behalf of Friends in 2017, said this was a rare happy ending in the ongoing battle against supertalls.

“This building will not be utilizing a loophole because government worked,” said Janes. “To me, it’s a feel good story for folks who care about the built environment.”

Still, Janes said, there is an open question about whether developers can utilize a so-called “open void.”

Though the zoning amendment adopted by the city last year did end the use of excessive mechanical voids in Manhattan, it did not directly address the issues raised with 249 East 62nd Street. The zoning amendment only applied to enclosed mechanical spaces, and the void in the original design was classified as outdoor space, so it would not be impacted.

Such is often the case when trying to address zoning loopholes, Janes said.

“I’ll think: ‘I just spent the last two and a half years trying to get this policy changed,’ and then somebody goes finds another loophole,” said Janes. He added that it’s unclear at this point if the city will move ahead in targeting open voids or not.

Kallos said he still wants the city to take action.

“Given how much outrage we saw from the community and the city as a whole around the original building plan, and the fact that even when we made it illegal they still tried to go forward with it, it would be better for the real estate development community to be on notice that doing this would be illegal,” said Kallos. “Because while it’s a win for the community, it doesn’t stop the next developer from coming around and trying the same loophole.”

“An avenue building that conforms to zoning means that common sense has prevailed, which is enormously gratifying, and a welcome result for the community.” Rachel Levy, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts