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Major Judicial Ruling Would See Developers Knock 20 Stories off Luxury Tower on Upper West Side

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by Mihai Olteanu

One of the most controversial developments in the city—200 Amsterdam at 69th Street on the Upper West Side—saw a major ruling handed down this past week that would force the developer to deconstruct the top twenty floors off the new building. The ruling, subject to appeal, is significant not only in the context of the drama surrounding this particular construction, which is now the tallest building on the UWS, but also for the future of construction that uses “air rights” acquired from surrounding properties to build ever higher. Most famously, the skinny but supertall new skyscrapers just south of Central Park on ‘Billionaire’s Row” were able to overcome zoning rules through the use of air rights. [1]

At 200 Amsterdam, the ruling comes several months after the 688-foot, 52-story building topped out. The judge’s ruling would force the building back down to accord with zoning in the neighborhood. A spokesperson for the developers argued the decision breaks with “forty years of precedent in the city’s zoning laws” and is a loss for the city due to a reduction in available housing units. For the neighborhood associations and local politicians who have fought the development fiercely for years and with no success until now, the ruling represents a huge victory, with almost half the building set to be shaved down if the ruling holds. In reference to the fact that the air rights for the building were acquired from numerous lots in the area, many of them noncontiguous, representatives from the Municipal Art Society, one of the principal opponents of the project, said they hoped the ruling would prevent future “gerrymandering” for tall developments, in reference to the political practice of drawing favorable districts for elections. [2]

The judge’s decision that the city erred in issuing the construction permit was not itself unusual, but the order to demolish all floors that exceed the stated zoning limit was remarkable and has been the main cause of widespread interest in the ruling. There are some, albeit rare, instances of developers being forced to remove floors, as in a 1991 case when a 31-story building on East 96th Street was reduced to 19 stories. If it is upheld, the new ruling could set a landmark precedent for the city’s real estate, whereby developers would need to proceed much more carefully when seeking to build new high-rise projects in neighborhoods with mostly low-rise building stock. At 200 Amsterdam itself, the ruling also calls into question what will happen to condos already under contract that are set to be removed, possibly opening up more legal quandaries that will need to be resolved. [3]

[1] Plitt, A. (February 2020) Upper West Side’s would-be tallest tower could lose 20 stories after legal challenge from Curbed NY https://ny.curbed.com/2020/2/18/21142030/upper-west-side-condo-200-amsterdam-lawsuit Accessed February 19 2020

[2] Offenhartz, J. (February 2020) ‘Groundbreaking’ Ruling Will Force Developers To Demolish Floors Of UWS Luxury Tower from Gothamist https://gothamist.com/news/groundbreaking-ruling-will-force-developers-demolish-floors-uws-luxury-tower Accessed February 19 2020

[3] Chen, S. (February 2020) Developers of Upper West Side Condo Tower May Have to Deconstruct 20 Floors from NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/nyregion/upper-west-side-condo-zoning.html Accessed February 19 2020

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