Local Politicians Spearhead Request by 26th Floor Resident Of The Sovereign for 250-Foot Height Limit in Vicinity

The SovereignView of The Sovereign on the skyline from 400 feet up, image from drone footage for 432 East 58th Street

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.


Image via Crain’s

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.

Rendering of 426-432 East 58th Street by Foster + Partners.

Rendering of 428-432 East 58th Street by Foster + Partners.

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.

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5 Comments on "Local Politicians Spearhead Request by 26th Floor Resident Of The Sovereign for 250-Foot Height Limit in Vicinity"

  1. George Blomme | January 26, 2016 at 10:49 am |

    This reminds me of the issue surrounding Trump’s East Side Tower that was fought and fought by the powerful and wealthy in an ugly building with an A-frame top. (See “Big Names Line Up Against Trump Tower Near U.N.” – NYTimes.com, 12/20/1998) Fortunately Trump was able to build his tower, and the A-frame folks had to suffer the loss of views they loved and paid for in an extremely ugly building. But this time is a bit different. Our Manhattan Boro President is a no growth person, and one wonders who got her elected to be this island’s Boro President. Possibly the people at the Sovereign or 400 East 56th Street. Seems to me she’d be better positioned in Perth Amboy.
    But at any rate, thank you YIMBY for explaining (and exposing) the hypocrisy floating around the Sovereign and perhaps 400 East 56th Street, probably the trigger points in the East Side/Sutton Place call for substantial rezoning.

  2. Anonymous owner | January 26, 2016 at 11:48 am |

    I live in this building and very much agree with this article.
    Alan Kersh is a crook who bends the rules to his own advantage. The board members are the same. They have been living in Socereign for years, make rules for everyone else but don’t apply to themselves. In this case they don’t care about the neighborhood, just about their views and value of their apartments.

  3. Wow, you can’t make this stuff up. Alan Kersh should be absolutely ashamed. And the politicans who kowtow to this kind of behavior are absolutely despicable.

  4. Elizabeth Malone | January 26, 2016 at 5:34 pm |

    Thank you for this article which I have reposted to Facebook. Despite your acronym, I find your reporting factual and even- handed. When you see bad design or planning, you call it. Good work!

  5. As an adjacent neighborhood resident (who happens to possess a Masters Degree in Urban Planning) I recently moved from a building adjacent to 220 CPS I have mixed feelings on the proposal as stated. Personally I believe the area bounded by Mitchell Place on the south to the north-side of 57th Street on the north, 1st Avenue on the west and the FDR on the east is an area of stability and probably should not be considered for rezoning or up zoning. This is an area with a diverse collection of housing stock from walk-ups to luxury co-ops and a few condos. Even in tony Beekman Place there are still walk-ups in rentals that are considered affordable by Manhattan standards.

    However the area north of the middle of 57th Street and south of 1st Avenue while technically Sutton Place is more unique. First the Sovereign did in-fact change the urban fabric of the neighborhood concerning both design and density. While the adjacent open-space is a nice amenity for the neighborhood it is truly underutilized. In addition the access roads and the actual 59th Street Bridge provide a true hard edge and just north of the bride the Solow developments have changed the character of the area once most desolate.

    With the above background, while I an not a fan of super-towers as most do not take into account the surrounding urban fabric, I do believe the areas of the south-side 58th to the Bridge and between 2nd Ave and Sutton may be considered an area of potential transition and up-zoning as 57th is a true physical demarcation.

    Concerning upzoning midtown east while I generally agree there is some logic there, such a concept requires more study. The 2nd Ave Subway has been on the books for decades and if/when it opens will make it to 63rd Street; penetration into Midtown East if it happens in my lifetime will be surprising (and I am in my prime years). What I believe is more warranted is either reuse or up zoning of the areas west of 3rd Avenue into midtown and use the blocks between 3rd Avenue and 1st Avenue as an area of transition to the lower and human scale of the area between Mitchell Place and 57th Street east of 1st Avenue.

    Finally concerning affordability, I am sorry the argument that the ultra-luxury buildings will translate into more affordability just does not hold true. While the surrounding buildings and apartments may be less expensive, they are far from affordable. When razing older buildings which house rent control and stabilized tenants as well as market rate buildings that may be walk-ups san doorman and amenities this is when one removes affordable housing from the neighborhood. While we want to truly believe density will increase affordability, this is a fallacy when the buildings being constructed are priced based on the underlying land value and density and height equate to higher prices based on altitude and views.

    Of note when looking at prices and resales the area of Beekman/Sutton is one of the most affordable neighborhoods south of 96th Street in Manhattan. This is an area of transition as older owners and tenants are giving way to younger families renting and purchasing. This is true market forces at work. I am one of those who moved from a neighborhood where prices has been inflated due to the new construction and other positive attributes i.e. Time Warner, general redevelopment of Midtown West to an area that is generally more affordable on a PSF basis.

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