Competing Visions for Riverside Center

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Differences focused on housing, school and auto showroom

By Dan Rivoli

For the last few years, many Upper West Side residents have known that an 8.2-acre commercial and residential mega-development would be built on a plot of land near the Hudson River, west of Columbus Circle.

Extell Development Company wants to turn this area into a vibrant mixed-use five-building center.

But the intensive public review of this three-million-square-foot project, dubbed Riverside Center, only technically began once the City Planning Commission certified the proposal May 24.

At the first informational meeting about the development, which covers the area between West 59th and 61st streets from West End Avenue to the river, two divergent visions for the project were outlined.

Gary Barnett, president of Extell Development Company, wants to turn an area once designated for two residential buildings and television studios into a vibrant mixed-use five-building center. His plan includes affordable and market-rate housing, a hotel, movie theater, retail space, auto showroom and service center, and a school.

Barnett told nearby residents and Community Board 7 members at the June 3 meeting that he had already made “significant compromises” to the plan, such as reducing the number of parking spaces and nixing a plan to bring Costco to the site.

“We know there’s going to be input going forward. We welcome that,” he said, adding, “There’s only so much we can give up.”

Barnett and his team are touting the project’s public amenities, most notably a new public school, to gain community approval.

Extell will create the shell and core of a new, 75,000-square-foot school. There will be enough space for an even bigger, 150,000-square-foot facility, but Barnett said it is up to the city’s School Construction Authority to fund the additional 75,000 square feet. He warned that if the community demands too many concessions from the whole proposal, then the project could tank and parents will be without a new school they desperately need.

“Asking for too much and putting too much burden on the project means nothing goes forward,” Barnett said.

Some residents who attended the meeting argued that the project should be scaled down and better integrated design-wise with the surrounding neighborhood. That group, which included members of Board 7, wanted the number of parking spots reduced and the auto showroom removed in favor of something appealing to the many Upper West Side residents who don’t own a car.

But the auto showroom is a key part to the economic viability of the project, planners say. Paul Selver, an attorney working on the project, called the area the second—and last—remaining automobile row in Manhattan.

“Reinforcing automobile row here is important,” Selver said.

Mel Wymore, chair of Board 7, laid out a list of demands for the developer. For the school, Wymore asked for at least one ground-level playground so that the facility better connects to the street grid.

She said the board also wanted a different affordable housing proposal. The plan currently calls for 12 percent of the units to be offered as affordable housing for 20 years before they are offered for market rate. No more than one-third of the affordable housing units are allowed to be in any one building. Exactly how many affordable apartments that equals is unknown because the units have yet to be designed. But Extell estimates that there will be 2,500 residential apartments.

Wymore, however, called for 20 percent of the project’s square footage to be dedicated to affordable housing.

“What we’d like to see is different and permanent,” she said.

There are several more meetings about Riverside Center scheduled for the next few months, including a June 15 public hearing at 6:30 p.m. The hearing takes place at P.S. 191, 210 W. 61st St. and Amsterdam Avenue.

Board 7 only has an advisory role in the approval and modification of the project, as does Borough President Scott Stringer. The City Council, including Council Member Gale Brewer’s influential vote, will have the say.

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