Zoning exemption could mean bigger buildings – but improved green space – on the Upper East Side
By Adam Janos
High rise developments on the Upper East Side could get significantly bigger soon. The community, meanwhile, could get less and less in return.
Land Use Attorney Shelly Friedman spoke to Community Board 8 on the Upper East Side Wednesday to discuss a text amendment that would make zoning regulations laxer for developers of community facilities (i.e. university and hospitals) throughout the neighborhood so as to permit a large-scale construction for Memorial Sloan-Kettering and CUNY-Hunter.
Currently, MSK/CUNY’s plan for development has a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 12.0, even though it’s set to be constructed on an FAR 10.0 site. In laymen’s terms, FAR is the total bulk of building a developer is allowed to
construct. Buildings are measured in total floor space, so whether a building is tall and skinny or short and squat is beside the point; it’s total floor space of the building compared to the total land area that matters.
The institutions in question co-purchased a plot of land between East 73rd and 74th Street along the FDR drive, and intend to turn the lot into a 750,000 square-foot outpatient cancer facility (MSK) and a 336,000 square-foot Science and Health Professions Building (CUNY).
Unfortunately for the developers, because of the FAR overreach, the institutions need to either find a way to shrink their buildings down by 17 percent, or else apply for a special permit.
That special permit – the Large Scale General Development permit, ZR Sec. 74-743 – currently calls on developers such as MSK and CUNY to deliver the community an investment in the way of open space and/or public works, to help
make amends for their zoning overreach. That investment could come in the form of a public plaza or affordable housing, amongst other items. MSK and CUNY, however, want to change the text on the amendment, and – in turn – change the script. Rather than build a plaza on the plot land they’re sitting on, they’d rather put money into restoring Andrew Haswell Green Park, a strip of land on the East River between East 59th Street and East 63rd that’s fallen into disrepair and currently is locked off behind a chain-link fence.
But since the permit regulation says nothing about investing in current parks – only creating new ones – they’d have to put a change into the language of the zoning law that would allow community facilities such as theirs to offer park development outside of the immediate vicinity of the building being constructed.
Unfortunately for MSK/CUNY, the plan raised a lot of questions for community board members, who among other things, questioned whether or not rehabilitating a park at East 59th Street was adequate compensation for a homeowner on East 73rd who suddenly found themselves with a new gigantic tower for a neighbor.
“Those who suffer should be rewarded,” said Sarah Chiu, community board member and local resident. “With these buildings comes traffic, diminished light… but the idea of this permit is then you can say, ‘at least I have this park. At least I have this plaza.’”
Lo van der Valk, another resident, thought the change to the permit was too elastic, and that if the permit didn’t assign an explicit economic ratio of “total extra square feet” to “resources for park development,” future developers could use the new regulations of the special permit as a fiscal loophole to overbuild and then invest a minimal contribution in the parks department, rather than making adequate public space on the premises of their building, as the current permit necessitates.
According Friedman, however, this isn’t a matter of building a park somewhere else versus building one on location, seeing as MSK and CUNY’s lot of land sits over the FDR drive and – as such – an open space would be ill-suited for the area in question. After all, who wants to sit at a plaza by the highway? Rather, he claims the text amendment would help his clients serve the community more appropriately, and more in the spirit of the original permit.
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