Last week, representatives for Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSK) made a final plea to Community Board 8 asking for their blessing on a variance request for their planned new cancer center on the Upper East Side. But much to the delight of many in attendance at the meeting, the board voted not to approve the request, creating a bumpier road to ultimate approval from the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) for the hospital.
MSK purchased the lot on the corner of York Avenue and East 61st Street in 2008 and is now hoping to build a 15-story outpatient cancer surgery center there. They could build as-of-right without seeking any special exemptions in zoning, but the hospital says that the current regulations cannot possibly accommodate the specific needs of a surgery center. They are seeking variances to create a curb cut for a patient drop-off and pick-up area, as well as to build fewer, wider stories to accommodate surgical needs. “This is really about building typology,” said Shelly Friedman, the land use attorney representing MSK, comparing the proposal to existing hospitals in the area, like Cornell.
Although MSK is technically claiming a hardship to the BSA in order to get the approval, something opponents have mocked as absurd for such a large institution with the money to begin new construction, Friedman insisted that it’s just about what type of construction is feasible on the site. While the zoning allows them to build several stories below grade, Friedman said that the site is in a hurricane inundation zone and that ConEdison would not place its equipment at any underground level, which is why they are looking to make each story larger to make up for the lost square footage. It would also cost an additional $12 million, MSK estimates, to build down into the type of soil there. “If it was $5 million or $50 million, we would be asking you for the same variances,” Friedman said.
Attorney Chris Wright, who represents the co-op building at 440 E. 62nd St. that is next door to the proposed site, provided rebuttals for almost all of Friedman’s points, accusing MSK of changing its story and failing the “good faith test” of being willing to sit down with the community board to consider alternate plans. Residents of the building have vehemently opposed the plans, which will block much of the air and light from their lot
line and regular windows. Friedman said that the reason MSK wouldn’t negotiate is that there isn’t really room to compromise; they have stated that they need a certain square footage on each floor for operating space and that even if the narrower as-of-right building would allow for slightly more light and air to flow to 440 E. 62nd St., the hospital
couldn’t work within those zoning restrictions.
Cabot Marks, the president of the coop board, also delivered an impassioned plea to the community board to reject the plans, pointing to giant slides showing a 3-year-old girl playing happily in front of a window that will eventually be blocked by the hospital building. “I’ve not heard one proposal, one statement, one inch of concession or thought
about what would improve our community or make this a little more palatable,”
Many board members were swayed not only by the plight of the building but by the ways the hospital will potentially impact the entire neighborhood. “I can’t give the hospital what it wants right now because they haven’t been a good neighbor,” said board member
Debbie Teitelbaum. The board voted 14 in favor of approving the variances, 25 against and one abstention as residents of 440 E. 62nd St. erupted into cheers. The hospital will go before the BSA on March 27 without the community board’s approval and with a
cadre of opponents sure to come protest the variances again.
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