A Manhattan state Supreme Court judge has rescinded a city permit for a hotly contested plan to build a 775-feet-tall luxury condo tower on the Upper West Side, arguing it defied zoning rules and common logic.
The decision on Friday marks a yet another twist in the years-long saga of 50 West 66th Street, a project proposed by Billionaire's Row developer Extell that was set to become the tallest building on the Upper West Side.
In a ruling over a lawsuit brought by City Club of New York, an urban policy group, Judge Arthur Engoron called the tower design a "blatant jacking-up of close to 200-feet."
The project was reflective of New York City's luxury condo boom, with entire floors intended to house mechanical equipment, a technique that several developers have taken advantage of to maximize height and profits, through the sale of apartments with scenic panoramic views of the city. All together, the proposed mechanical void space in the Extell building was to have totaled 198 feet in height, almost half the length of a football field, thereby giving it mega-skyscraper status.
Voids are strategically positioned in the middle to lower half of a building, enabling subsequent floors to sit higher.
The plan so outraged city officials that it spurred changes to the zoning law that last year limited the height of these floors known as mechanical voids.
Extell, however, was considered grandfathered in under the old rules. Landmark West, a neighborhood preservation group, challenged the project last year before the city's Board of Standards and Appeals. Under zoning rules, mechanical space does not count toward the city's calculation of maximum allowable floor area for a building. But Landmark West contended that most of the floors were empty space, with less than 22% of the areas occupied by mechanical equipment.
The city's Board of Standards and Appeals decided in a split vote in favor of Extell. Under city rules, a tie goes to the developer, although the board did not issue a written decision.
City Club of New York, which also brought a BSA appeal but lost, later sued the city and Extell using a similar argument.
In his decision, Judge Engoron said that the void design was an egregiously overreach by the developer.
"No sane system of city planning, and no sane system of judicial adjudication," he wrote, "would allow developers to end-run around height-limits by including in buildings gargantuan mechanical spaces that may not even contain mechanical equipment and have no purpose other than to augment height beyond otherwise legal limits."
John Low-Beer, the attorney who argued the case for the City Club, said the decision was an indictment on the city's zoning authorities.
“In recent years, the city agencies charged with enforcing the zoning resolution have been too ready to endorse the stratagems of property developers who stretch its text past its breaking point," he said. "In this case, those violations of law would have led to the tallest building on the Upper West Side, a building totally out of scale, more than twice as high as intended by the zoning resolution. I am pleased, therefore, that the court has enforced the zoning resolution as it was written and intended.”
A spokesperson for Extell said the developer planned to appeal the decision.
“The court’s decision overturns a unanimous, well-reasoned decision of the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), the expert body which correctly concluded that Extell’s building plan complies with all applicable zoning regulations,“ Extell said in a statement.
Given the weak luxury condo market, the developer is likely in no hurry to build anyway. The developers of another high-profile Manhattan development known as Two Bridges successfully appealed a stunning judgment recently that ordered them to undergo a lengthier zoning review process. The original judge in that case was Engoran.
Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city's Law Department said, "We are evaluating the city’s legal options.”
On Friday, the ruling was hailed as victory by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who had fought the project along with several other elected officials.
"This decision is good news for people who want to see the zoning resolution rules followed and ensure that developers are held accountable," she said. "Mechanical voids that don't actually hold mechanical equipment are counter to logic and, now, to zoning."
Senator Brad Hoylman, who represents the neighborhood, said he applauded the ruling "against the misuse of mechanical voids to maximize developers’ profits over the concerns of our communities" and called it a testament to the activism of many of the groups involved.