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.