On Friday, Crain’s reported on a rezoning proposal to downzone Sutton Place and institute a 260-foot height limit on new developments in the area. What wasn’t reported was the real cause behind this not-so-arbitrary figure: the leader of the East River Fifties Alliance, Alan Kersh, happens to live on the 26th floor of The Sovereign, which at 47 stories tall, is almost double the height limit its residents want to force on new buildings in the blocks to the south.
The proposal is explicitly calling for a strict height limit that just happens to be
ten feet below exactly below the floor of the person spearheading its implementation (a spokesperson for the ERFA sent YIMBY a note the height limit will be 260 feet, not 250 feet as originally reported). This number is not a coincidence, and shows how local politicians like City Council Member Ben Kallos are more than willing to kowtow to wealthy NIMBYs (as well as City Council Member Daniel Garodnick and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who are also backing the rezoning). Now, if you can assemble a large enough armada of lawyers, you too can apparently call on local politicians to say Not In My Backyard to skyscrapers in Midtown Manhattan.
The rezoning would disbar anything taller than 260 feet from rising in the air surrounding The Sovereign, which towers over the rest of the neighborhood. Units inside are on the market from $1.35 million to $5.95 million, although its residents have made attempts to sound like middle-class victims, with one owner offering up the tragedy that her Picasso would no longer have proper lighting.
A GIF prepared by Crain’s best illuminates the specificity of the rezoning. Each of the various sites with ample remaining air rights lies within the blocks immediately to the south of The Sovereign, and it is no coincidence that this rezoning is targeting the few blocks that could spoil the residents’ southern and eastern views.
The noise created by these people is partially a factor of how grotesquely large The Sovereign is in the first place, with its oversized form aggregating enough marginally wealthy people into one place to create a monstrous entity capable of footing large legal bills and creating a racket in the press. Funny enough, Paul Goldberger characterized The Sovereign as “brutally destructive of the scale of 58th Street and Sutton Place” back in 1978, and at 47 floors in height, the new development limits proposed by its residents would allow it to retain prominence on the skyline forever, with views assured and property values kept artificially high as a result.
When judging the new 57th Street developments, vitriol often takes precedence over critique. And while buildings like 432 Park can prove aesthetically controversial, Foster’s design for 432 East 58th Street is about five hundred times more attractive than The Sovereign, which blocks more light and air than any of the 57th Street supertalls will. Its hulking form is a blight upon the neighborhood, unparalleled but somewhat echoed in the equally-appalling 400 East 56th Street, where the East River Fifties Alliance is holding their next meeting on the 40th floor Skylounge, 150 feet above the limit they want to institute to ‘save the neighborhood’.
Despite the fact that the eventual Second Avenue Subway is going to run adjacent to this neighborhood, meriting additional height and density, local politicians like Brewer and Garodnick would rather enable a handful of wealthy potential donors than serve the best interest of all Manhattanites.
Buildings like The Sovereign are ultimately the next round of Manhattan development that is going to become affordable through the process of filtering, especially as new and superior product rises in the surrounding blocks. The Sovereign’s pricy listings are quite unjustified for the quality of its construction, and a continued lack of supply is the only real reason that units in a hulking monstrosity still sell for so much. And this is why NIMBYs like the EFRA’s President, Alan Kersh, want to restrict height exactly below their view-lines.
Instead of allowing this soon-to-be-worth-much-less housing to filter down to lower income levels as has traditionally happened in New York City, empowered rich people can now afford to bog up city planning with arbitrary rezonings that would do nothing to preserve historic architecture or improve quality of life for citizens as a whole. Rather, this kind of action shows “citizen activism” at its absolute worst: an entitled group of super-rich individuals who want to deprive others of the right to live in New York City, and only to preserve the value of their property.
In fact, the East 50s should be a candidate for an upzoning, if anything. With Midtown East’s redevelopment also in the making, and with the new subway finally opening in the next few years, the neighborhood is a sensible location for a substantial number of new apartments.
While towers like the one proposed at 432 East 58th Street are beneficial, even larger buildings with more units would be better. Price-points in the neighborhood already justify new construction, but enabling developers to build with substantial boosts to FAR would increase supply in an area that could and should help meet the needs of a rejuvenated Midtown East.
Regardless of what should be done, New Yorkers must realize that what’s actually happening is being conducted without regard to the future of the city, to the benefit of a select few moneyed individuals. A rezoning with a height limit at a level one floor below that of its leading proponent is likely not a coincidence (according to ACRIS, Kersh purchased unit 26E for $2,000,000 back in 2009).
While both Brewer and Garodnick claim to vouch for affordability, preserving the views of a two million dollar apartment probably doesn’t fall within that scope, and would actually serve to prevent the unit’s price from dropping. This is an explicit attack on the natural filtering of housing stock, and a blatant effort to maintain interests of a few high-powered NIMBYs who have theirs and think you should get yours elsewhere.
Subscribe to the YIMBY newsletter for weekly updates on New York’s top projects