Author Archives: FRIENDS

Decision Regarding Marx Brothers Playground Issued

The New York Supreme Court has dismissed an Article 78 filed by the Coalition to Save Marx Brothers Playground comprised of FRIENDS of the Upper East Side, the Municipal Art Society, Carnegie Hill Neighbors, and CIVITAS. The challenge sought to overturn the alienation of this city-owned “jointly operated playground” (JOP) on East 96th Street that would allow the space to be mined for development rights to bolster the size of a private development owned by Avalon Bay.

In a joint statement, the members of the coalition have said: “We are deeply disappointed in the Court’s decision to deny our Article 78 petition, and are weighing our next steps. We are emboldened by Justice Kelley’s judgment, however, that Marx Brothers Playground (prior to its alienation), as well as all publicly owned playgrounds under the jurisdiction of the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, are parks protected by the New York State Public Trust Doctrine.” Click HERE to read the full statement.

FRIENDS is grateful for the support of the community who supported this fight, and who continue to believe in the importance of protecting our neighborhood’s public open space. The overall area of Upper East Side, despite being a family-friendly residential neighborhood, is comprised of less than 1% open or recreational space. This makes all of our parks, esplanades, POPS and playgrounds all the more precious to residents and FRIENDS intends to continue to strive for their continual protection.

FRIENDS Files DOB Challenge Against New Tower at 1059 Third Avenue

Massing diagram and image showing construction progress of 1059 Third Avenue. Drawing credit: George M. Janes and Associates.

Last week, FRIENDS filed a zoning challenge to the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) approval of a tower that relies upon falsified measurements and flagrant zoning violations to achieve its enormous size.

The subject site is 1059 Third Avenue, a 30-story tower rising rapidly to a height of 466 feet near the corner of East 63rd Street. It is located at the other end of the very same block where 249 East 62nd Street is set to rise. These two projects will tower over the charming, low-scale Treadwell Farm Historic District
and are both being developed by the Orlando-based firm Real Estate Inverlad and Third Palm Capital, based in Dallas.

Massing diagram depicting 1059 Third Avenue (left) and 249 East 62nd Street (right) with the low-rise row houses of the Treadwell Farm Historic District along 62nd Street. Credit: George M. Janes and Associates.

Designed by Manuel Glas Architects, 1059 Third Avenue first received its zoning approval from DOB in 2015. Despite its plans having been amended and approved by the DOB multiple times, including zoning diagrams most recently filed in March 2019, they still have serious and pervasive errors. 

The errors in the drawings allow 1059 Third Avenue more floor area than permitted by zoning and allow the building to skirt the requirements of the tower-on-base form, which requires the tower portion to comply with specific tower coverage and floor area requirements that are not met here.

Most troubling, the building is nearly 10,000 square feet too large for its zoning district. It accomplishes this through a combination of improper floor area deductions taken systematically in the most valuable tower floors, incorrect measurements of gross floor area on every floor over 18, and deductions to which this building is not entitled. The size, pattern, and pervasiveness of the errors in the DOB-approved drawings are of grave concern to FRIENDS.

Though immaterial to the zoning challenge, there are also serious ongoing safety issues at this site. In January a portion of a concrete wall fell onto a neighboring building and a full stop work order has been in place since then.

Taken together, these safety and zoning issues are exceptional and indicate a brazen flouting of  regulations that govern development in New York City. That such errors persist so late in the construction process begs questions about the DOB’s competence and the integrity of the system by which building plans are designed and approved. Though drastic, the demolition of portions of the building that do not comply with the law may be the only satisfactory solution in this case. 

The Buildings Department is required to respond to Zoning Challenges in writing within 75 days. FRIENDS will continue to share updates as they become available.

Click here to read FRIENDS’ Zoning Challenge to 
the DOB for 1059 Third Avenue.

FRIENDS Weighs in on City and State Proposals to Close Zoning Loopholes

FRIENDS Weighs in on City and State Proposals to Close Zoning Loopholes  

Schematic massing diagrams depicting 249 East 62nd Street. Left: Based on plans filed in 2017. Right: Under the constraints of a proposed bill to alter New York State’s Multiple Dwelling Law. Credit: George M. Janes and Associates.

The public discussion around the urgent need to close zoning loopholes that are contributing to overdevelopment continues to play out in the press, most recently in aLetter to the Editor that appeared today in Crain’s New York Business by FRIENDS’ Executive Director Rachel Levy. The letter clarifies that while the City’s proposal to close the mechanical void loophole is a small step in the right direction, its narrow focus radically misses the mark. Levy suggests an alternate path for reform through amendments in the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law (MDL) that FRIENDS has supported. Proposed amendments in the State Legislature would provide a more comprehensive solution to a wider range of zoning loopholes that even Crain’s has questioned. They set a hard cap on “free” mechanical spaces up to 5% of the total building, count open-air voids as floor area, limit free mechanical floors to 20 feet and force buildings with unusually tall ceiling heights to count those areas as floor area multiple times. Significantly, the amendments would not hinder affordable housing, which rarely uses such tactics.
Read FRIENDS’ Letter to the Editor: “No a-voiding this loophole: How to stop unexpected towers,” by Rachel Levy, Crain’s New York Business, April 8, 2019.
As the MDL amendments continue to gain support, the City’s action to discourage mechanical voids will progress this week with a vote by the City Planning Commission (CPC) scheduled for Wednesday, April 10th. This proposal is the first of a multi-stage effort at the city level to curtail the exploitation of non-occupiable mechanical void space in residential and mixed-use towers city-wide.

This text amendment was reviewed at a CPC public hearing on Wednesday, March 13th where the proposal was met with significant commentary from a wide variety of stakeholders. While real estate industry representatives pushed for expanded allowances, the proposal was met with near universal agreement among community-based and city-wide advocates that the thresholds must be tightened from the proposed 25 feet of “free” mechanical space separated by a minimum of 75 feet in height. Read FRIENDS’ testimony and recommendations HERE.

Following the CPC’s review session on March 25th, the CPC now appears poised to vote on revised text amendment language that may further weaken the proposal by expanding the 25 foot threshold to 30 feet. The proposal will then move on to the City Council for discussion and a future vote, where there will be a second opportunity to amend the proposal. At that stage it will once again be critical to lean on our elected officials to shape modifications to the current proposal and make crystal clear the issues we expect to see addressed in DCP’s second action later this year. 

City Planning Commission Vote
on the Residential Mechanical Voids Text Amendment
Wednesday, April 10th, beginning at 10:00 am
120 Broadway, Concourse level

Agenda HERE. Livestream of the proceedings will be available HERE

Read More: 

FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Advocacy Alert, March 8, 2019 DCP’s Full Zoning Text Amendment Application, Certified by CPC on January 28, 2019
Summary of the proposal, with a map of impacted areas, prepared by Council Member Ben Kallos 
“Plans for ‘condo on stilts’ halted over fire safety concerns, says DOB,” by Caroline Spivack, Curbed NY, March 8, 2019.  
City drafts rules to crack down on height-boosting loopholes,” by Joe Anuta, Crain’s New York Business, January 25, 2019.

36th Annual Meeting and Awards Ceremony

Image: The Venetian Room at 972 Fifth Avenue, Beowulf  Sheehan (2018)

We are pleased to hold our 36th Annual Meeting & Awards Ceremony at The Cosmopolitan Club. The Regency Revival-style building was designed by architect Thomas Harlan Ellett in 1932 and is a fitting setting to recognize the fine restoration, renovation, and advocacy work on the Upper East Side over the past year.

Please join us in celebrating our awardees at this momentous occasion!

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019
The Cosmopolitan Club
122 East 66th Street
6:30 p.m.

*Proper attire is required (jackets for men and attire of similar formality for women).


Renaissance Award
The Venetian Room, Cultural Services of the French Embassy

Yorkville Heritage Award
245 East 78th Street

Good Neighbor Award
Wankel’s Hardware

Streetscape Innovation Award
Urban Umbrella

Exterior Restoration Award
755 Park Avenue

Good Stewardship Award
Carl Schurz Park Conservancy

Click here to RSVP

Advocacy Update: City Planning Voids Hearing March 13th – Join Us to Speak Out!

Public Input Needed for Positive Zoning Change! 

Image Credit: Department of City Planning

A public hearing to be held next Wednesday, March 13th at the City Planning Commission (CPC) marks the next milestone in the public review process for the Department of City Planning’s mechanical void proposal. This action stems directly from Mayor de Blasio’s response to the issue of zoning loopholes contributing to out of scale development, advocacy that was catalyzed by FRIENDS and fellow advocates at Town Hall meetings in 2018. For additional background, including a comparison of the two policy proposals currently on the table from both the City and the State, see HERE.


City Planning Commission Hearing on VOIDS Zoning Text Amendment

Wednesday, March 13th beginning at 10:00 am
120 Broadway, Concourse Level
Agenda HERE

Can’t make it in person? Send your comments to the CPC as outlined HERE.

The solution proposed by the Department of City Planning (DCP) takes a narrow view of this broad and wide-ranging issue, but it represents the first public attempt to reign in exploitation of zoning loopholes, and it is a positive, if incomplete, first step. Read DCP’s two-page description of the plan HERE

FRIENDS supports the DCP proposal, but there is a critical need for modification in order to make it truly effective. Constructive public feedback now will also help inform the scope and content of DCP’s promised second action later this year.

249 East 62nd Street, which contains a 150 ft structural void.

As proposed, the DCP text limits only enclosed void spaces, and risks inadvertently incentivizing the use of unenclosed mechanical voids and stilts. Unless modified to remove the word “enclosed,” the proposal may not even impact the “barbell” building at 249 East 62nd Street, which features an egregious 150 foot void and galvanized FRIENDS’ and DCP’s work on this issue. This week, in response to a joint effort from a chorus of elected officials and FRIENDS, the Department of Buildings announced that it will require written review of the void condition from the Fire Department before the project can move forward. This referral to the FDNY is a step in the right direction, but the DCP proposal must also be amended to address this gaping loophole.
Furthermore, DCP proposed that in high density residential zoning districts and their equivalents (including First, Second, Third, and York Avenues on the Upper East Side) enclosed mechanical voids taller than 25 feet would count toward a building’s allowed floor area, and would count in their entirety if they are within 75 feet of each other. Though focused on residential buildings, the proposal would apply to some mixed use buildings as well. Though we understand DCP’s desire to establish limits while permitting design flexibility, 25 feet is overly generous for most mechanical needs, and allowing voids every 75 feet is far too frequent. All types of voids and stilts must be covered by this action, and the 25’/75′ thresholds should be significantly tightened.

While not a perfect solution, FRIENDS believes the Zoning Text Amendment is a critical first step. We plan to address our concerns with the proposal, including the senseless exclusion of unenclosed voids and stilts, the continued allowance of multiple exempt mechanical floors, and the seemingly arbitrary choice of 75 feet to prevent clustering.

Join us on Wednesday to make your voice heard!

Read More:
DCP’s Full Zoning Text Amendment Application, Certified by CPC on January 28, 2019

Summary of the proposal, with a map of impacted areas, prepared by Council Member Ben Kallos
“Plans for ‘condo on stilts’ halted over fire safety concerns, says DOB,” by Caroline Spivack, Curbed NY, March 8, 2019. 
City drafts rules to crack down on height-boosting loopholes,” by Joe Anuta, 
Crain’s New York Business, January 25, 2019.

Advocacy Update: Both City and State Move to Address Zoning Loopholes and Curb Supertalls

Public review underway for City proposal to limit mechanical void exemption

Image Credit: Department of City Planning

Two separate proposals have been introduced to address the role that zoning loopholes are playing in the supertall towers rapidly cropping up in New York City’s residential neighborhoods, and that have been a focus of FRIENDS’ advocacy for over two years. Last month, the City Planning Commission (CPC) certified a Zoning Text Amendment on behalf of the Department of City Planning (DCP)  that is intended to curtail the scale and frequency of excess mechanical void space that is currently exempt from zoning calculations. In the State Legislature, Upper West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal has introduced a bill (A.5026) that would modify the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law (MDL) in relation to floor area. This bill aims to curb residential supertall development through hard limits on exempt mechanical space, and regulation of floor-to-ceiling heights and exempted outdoor spaces.

After tireless advocacy on the part of FRIENDS, our colleagues at Landmark West!, and neighborhood-minded advocates citywide, we are thankful that both DCP and the State Legislature have begun to propose solutions to curb overdevelopment through zoning loopholes. The two proposals differ in both content and procedure, but the good news is that state and city lawmakers agree on the urgent need to maintain predictability in new design and construction and to limit developers’ ability to build sky-high by manipulating the zoning laws. These two related but different proposals are crucial first steps towards formally closing zoning loopholes and regulating buildings in high density districts in terms of their 21st century needs and limitations.

While a positive first step, the City’s proposal takes a narrow view of the issue by focusing solely on discouraging enclosed mechanical void spaces. Though we support DCP’s proposal, there is a critical need for modification in order to make it truly effective. Notably, it does not address unenclosed voids or stilts and therefore may not impact the “Jetsons” building at 249 East 62nd Street which has been a catalyst for both FRIENDS’ and DCP’s work on this issue. DCP has committed to a follow-up action later this year to broaden the scope, and feedback now can help to influence both the current and later proposal. Read DCP’s two-page description HERE.

In contrast, the Assembly bill presents a broad framework for reform that FRIENDS was instrumental in shaping.  It is a much more comprehensive approach than the City’s proposal, and we are hopeful that the parallel proposals of these two varied approaches to different aspects of the loophole problem will enrich the public discourse around these ideas and lead to more productive, and effective policy outcomes. Read the details in Assembly Member Rosenthal’s press release HERE.

Next Steps:

Community Board 8 Land Use & Full Board MeetingWednesday, February 20th, 6:30 p.m.
Ramaz School, 125 East 85th Street

Tonight, Wednesday February 20th, CB8 will meet to review DCP’s proposal to address excess mechanical voids. A representative from DCP will present the proposal and public comments will be taken. This will be followed by a public hearing of the City Planning Commission in March.

While not a perfect solution, FRIENDS believes the Zoning Text Amendment is a critical first step. We plan to address concerns raised by the proposal, including the senseless exclusion of unenclosed voids and stilts, the continued allowance of multiple exempt mechanical floors, and the seemingly arbitrary choice of 75 feet to prevent clustering. We strongly believe constructive feedback to DCP now can help to shape modifications to the current proposal to address this complex issue, as well as inform the scope of the second action later this year. 

Read More:

How Luxury Developers Use the ‘Void’ to Build Sky High,” by Ginia Bellafante,The New York Times, January 24, 2019.

City drafts rules to crack down on height-boosting loopholes,” by Joe Anuta, Crain’s New York Business, January 25, 2019.

“‘Building On Stilts’ That Inspired City To Close Zoning Loophole May Get Built Anyway,” by Elizabeth Kim, Gothamist, February 1, 2019. 

“State legislators want to supersede city’s rules to chop luxe towers,” by Joe Anuta, Crain’s New York Business, February 15, 2019.

Third Avenue and 74th Street Tower Heads to the BSA

Tower project on the iconic J.G. Melon Block seeks variance for additional development rights

Left: Current form of the block. Shaded tan buildings have sold air rights to the tower. Right: Conjectural massing of proposed 31-story building.Credit: George Janes

A proposed development at 1297-1299 Third Avenue, on the same block as the iconic J.G. Melon restaurant, has drawn significant attention from neighbors and community groupsand will head to the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) next Tuesday, January 29th. Developers Thor Equities and Premier have assembled a site using air rights purchased from much of the block on the East side of Third Avenue between 74th and 75th Streets, where plans to construct a new residential building are underway. Demolition of the two existing tenements on the footprint of the proposed building was completed this summer.

Lack of clarity around the specifics of this project has been a constant since conceptual renderings were released in 2016 showing a design that fully absorbed the southern corner of the block. But a 2017 BSA application and initial presentations to Community Board 8 in 2018 indicated a 370 foot tall, 31-story tower that would cantilever significantly to the north and south over the neighboring tenements, but leave those buildings intact, including the corner building housing J.G. Melon. Subsequent plans filed with the Department of Buildings described something else entirely – an 80 foot, 6-story building to replace the 5-story tenements. This filing appeared to be a placeholder for the developer’s true plans, and FRIENDS took issue with the fact that the developer had proposed two completely different visions of the same site to two city agencies. See our March 2018 letter to the DOB here.

Graphic of building site and combined zoning lot

Next Tuesday, January 29th, the project will head to the BSA seeking to amend a 1970 varianceat 203 East 74th Street (Lot 103), around the corner from the development site. The applicants wish to purchase approximately 7,000 square feet of unused development rights from this site, but the air rights transfer must be reviewed by the BSA because 203 East 74th Street was issued a variance for an unusually small rear court when it was constructed in 1970. An already small, dark rear court that provides the only light and air for residential units in that building would only become darker still if this amendment to the existing variance is granted.
The inclusion of development rights from 203 East 74th street would not only increase both the scale of any new building on Third Avenue and increase the depth of cantilevers extending over the neighboring buildings, it would also significantly decrease access to light and air, two core urban values, at 203 East 74th Street.

YOUR PRESENCE MATTERS! Show your support through attendance or public testimony. Written testimony may also be submitted according to these instructions.
JOIN US at the Board of Standards and Appeals

Tuesday, January 29th
Beginning at 10:00 a.m.
22 Reade Street, Spector Hall
203 East 74th Street (Calendar number 103-70-BZ) is item 15 on the calendar.Agenda is available HERE.

Voiding the Voids on the Upper East Side

City Planning Commission to certify new text to close the excess mechanical void loophole  

Image Credit: Department of City Planning

FRIENDS has been sounding the drum about the mechanical void loophole for over two years, along with sustained joint efforts from civic-minded advocacy groups like Landmark West!, the Municipal Art Society, Carnegie Hill Neighbors, and CIVITAS, as well as invaluable and tireless support from our fellow local champion, Council Member Ben Kallos.

For years, our City’s residential neighborhoods have suffered from the construction of out-of-scale buildings that loom 500, 600, even more than 700 feet above the street level. These heights have been achieved by developers gaming the system through “innovative” loopholes that exploit gaps in New York City’s Zoning Resolution (ZR). Currently, there areno laws limiting the amount of so-called “mechanical voids” that aren’t counted as zoning floor area. This has led to the construction of artificially bolstered residential units practically on stilts which capture relatively higher sale prices than units further from the sky.

On Monday, January 28th, the Department of City Planning (DCP) will present a Zoning Resolution text amendment to the City Planning Commission (CPC) for certification. The DCP text is intended to curtail both the scale and frequency of these voids in R9 and R10 and equivalent zoning districts for residential towers. The proposed text amendment intends to discourage excess mechanical void space by counting voids larger than 25 feet in height. It is also intended to discourage the clustering of multiple voids by counting voids located within 75 feet of each other as zoning floor area. These rules will apply to residential buildings as well as mixed-use buildings with less than 25% commercial space.

Once certified, the proposed text will be presented to the City Council and Borough President as part of the public review process, and a CPC public hearing is expected later this year. DCP also plans to present a second text amendment later this year that will address a broader geographic scope.
Our work, and the work of our partners and elected officials, on this issue is far from complete, but the pending certification of this text amendment is a poignant signal that the voices of our residential communities have been heard and we will be one step closer to closing the loopholes that lead to out-of-control development.

Department of City Planning Certification Review Session:

Monday, January 28th, 2019 
120 Broadway (Concourse level), New York, NY, 10271
1:00 p.m. Unable to join us downtown? A livestream of the meeting will be available here

Read more:

City fast-tracks crackdown on buildings on stilts,” by Joe Anuta,Crain’s New York Business, January 22, 2019.
How Luxury Developers Use the ‘Void’ to Build Sky High,” by Ginia Bellafante,The New York Times, January 24, 2019.
City drafts rules to crack down on height-boosting loopholes,” by Joe Anuta, 
Crain’s New York Business, January 25, 2019.

A New Yorkville Landmark in 2019?

LPC calendars a new Yorkville building for landmark designation! 

On Tuesday, January 22nd, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted to calendar The First Hungarian Reformed Church at 346 East 69th Street for potential Individual Landmark designation. The church is considered to be a striking example of 20th century vernacular church design, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

This church was designed by prolific New York City architect and Austro-Hungarian immigrant Emery Roth in the Secessionist Style and built from 1915-1916. The building was commissioned by the Elsö Magyar Református Templom congregation that was comprised of Hungarian immigrants and their families and the same congregation is active at the church today. If designated, this would be the only Emery Roth-designed religious property to be landmarked.

At Tuesday’s meeting, LPC Chair Sarah Carroll said that the agency’s research staff has been focused on examining the immigrant history of Yorkville and that the First Hungarian Reformed Church is a highly intact and rare extant reminder of the neighborhood’s Hungarian legacy.

Stay tuned for a public hearing date later this year!

Breaking News: De Blasio Administration to Finally Propose Void Solution

City to Address Mechanical Void Loopholes, and Soon!  

Image Credit: Michael Korfhage

Following the Department of Building’s (DOB) reversal of prior zoning approval at 36 West 66th Street last week, it seems the city is prepared to move forward on proposing a solution to close loopholes in the zoning resolution related to unregulated mechanical void space in new developments. The City Council and Department of City Planning (DCP) will begin a review process for new text, possibly as soon as this month, that will address the issue of these oversized inter-building voids that have resulted in non-contextual supertall towers peppered throughout our city’s residential neighborhoods.
Mayor Bill de Blasio had previously promised to address the blight of zoning loopholes being used by the developers of luxury residential buildings by the end of 2018. However, this administration had missed the deadline after expanding the geographic scope where changes to the mechanical void allowances would be considered.

The following is an excerpt from “City fast-tracks crackdown on buildings on stilts” by Joe Anuta, published this afternoon in Crains. To read the full article, click HERE.

“The city had initially said it would regulate mechanical voids by the end of 2018. However, at the behest of the City Council officials, the Department of City Planning said in December that it was expanding the scope of the changes to cover more areas of Manhattan, and that the more comprehensive set of rules would be ready by the spring. But in yet another turn, several sources told Crain’s that the department and council are now looking to institute the rules in two stages. Because City Planning had nearly finished the regulations covering the Upper East and Upper West sides, those will likely be introduced to the public review process first, potentially as soon as this month. In part, this decision was made after consulting with groups such as Landmark West! and Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, which have been vocal opponents of so-called mechanical voids and want to try to stop a project by Extell and another project on East 62nd Street that have incorporated them in their designs. ‘Advocacy from the community had a large role in getting us to a resolution that will finally close this needless loophole,’ said City Councilman Ben Kallos, who has been a vocal opponent of the voids. ‘Ultimately there was a lot of pressure to get this done on the timeline that was originally proposed by City Planning and the mayor.'”

FRIENDS intends to weigh-in on the appropriateness of the proposed solutions. We will continue to share updates about the review process as they become available