Tower Planned for Upper West Side May Be Too Tall and Too Late
A developer is proposing to build a 775-foot superluxury tower on the Upper West Side, but the neighborhood doesn’t want it, and the market may not support it
In a city seemingly exhausted by a long-running construction boom, the number of pitched battles over new developments appears to be growing.
Community groups and elected officials are challenging a planned 668-foot condominium skyscraper at 200 Amsterdam Avenue, as well as a trio of towers in the Two Bridges neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Opponents have also brought to a halt a planned 800-foot tower near Sutton Place on the East Side.
Now, the developer Gary Barnett, who built the first super-tall tower along what has become known as billionaire’s row on 57th Street and has a second under construction, is pushing forward with yet another ultra high-end skyscraper that is already drawing opposition.
The tower is set to rise 775 feet, or 69 stories, on a side street on the Upper West Side. The limestone and bronze tower designed by the architecture firm Snohetta with chamfered corners and a butterfly-shaped crown is slated to include 127 condominiums with views of Central Park. There would be an outdoor terrace on the 16th
The tower, which is planned for a site just west of Central Park West, would have an address of 50 West 66th Street.
Helen Rosenthal, the City Council member who represents the area, said the proposed tower was “out of context for the neighborhood, and part of the creep of Midtown West into the heart of the Upper West Side.”
“We thought our zoning laws protect the area from very tall buildings,” she said. “This is truly Sisyphean.”
Not only is Mr. Barnett, the principal at Extell Development, facing off against the neighborhood, he is swimming against a tide of developers who believe the superluxury market has gone cold.
Sales of super-expensive apartments — those priced at $5,000 per square foot or more that might sell for as much as $100 million, fell to 42 in 2017 from 68 in 2016, according to CityRealty, a brokerage firm. Despite the number of superluxury towers under construction and the media attention, the highest priced apartments in New York City only represent a fraction of the thousands of apartments sold every year. But the collective price tag for the 221 units priced at $5,000 a square foot or more that sold between January 2013 and today was $5.8 billion.
There were six times as many apartments sold during the same period to the merely wealthy — in the $3,000- to $5,000-per-square-foot range, or say, $20 million for a 5,000-square-foot unit.
Two more superluxury buildings nearing completion are expected to start closings on apartments next year. In the meantime, developers at the Sony Building on Madison Avenue and at 666 Fifth Avenue have abandoned their plans to convert those office towers into luxury apartments only a billionaire could afford.
“I guess I didn’t get the memo,” Mr. Barnett said.
He said that he is convinced that New York will remain a haven for wealthy New Yorkers and foreign investors, who pay a premium for height.
Despite its reputation as a skyscraper city, New York has had a mixed view of tall buildings. In 1915, many New Yorkers recoiled from the sheer size of the 545-foot tall Equitable Building downtown, fueling passage of the city’s first zoning plan regulating height and setbacks.
Even the development-friendly administration of Edward I. Koch in the 1980s blocked attempts by Donald J. Trump and G. Ware Travelstead to build the world’s tallest tower.
And in 2007, the even more developer-friendly Bloomberg administration shaved 200 feet off the height of Jean Nouvel’s proposed 1,250-foot tower near the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown before approving it.
Ms. Rosenthal, the City Council member, and Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, are questioning whether Upper West Side zoning allows Mr. Barnett to build so high without going through the city’s approval process.
But Mr. Barnett, a former diamond trader-turned-New York real estate mogul, is confident. He hired a zoning lawyer, David Karnovsky, the former general counsel to the city’s Department of City Planning.
“It’s a beautiful site,” Mr. Barnett said. “It’s a true residential location.”
The building would be the tallest on the Upper West Side, and it has taken three years to assemble the land.
In 2014, a minority partner in Mr. Barnett’s project, Megalith Capital, bought three adjoining tenements for $85 million on West 66th Street, off Central Park West. Megalith sought to acquire a synagogue next door and a building behind the tenements, on 65th Street, owned by the Jewish Guild for the Blind.
But it was slow going and Megalith brought in Extell. Ultimately, Extell and its partners bought the synagogue property for $45 million and a pledge to build a new synagogue inside the tower. They paid an additional $147 million for the Guild property, while moving the institution to another location.
To build an even taller tower, Mr. Barnett also bought a substantial chunk of unused development rights — 132,054 square feet — for $55 million, from ABC, the owner of a building on the west side of the Guild property.
He initially filed plans with the Buildings Department for a 25-story building, even as he continued to acquire other property. Critics contend that Mr. Barnett used a “bait-and-switch” tactic to lull the neighborhood into complacency. Although he knew that the Upper West Side would be characteristically combative, Mr. Barnett said, he filed a plan for what he could build at the time.
Councilwoman Rosenthal contends that the zoning does not permit a 775-foot-tall building.
But Mr. Barnett and his zoning lawyer argue that it allows for a slim tower of unlimited height as long as 60 percent of the building’s bulk is in a podium no higher than 150 feet tall.
“A 700-footer doesn’t even rank anymore” as a super-tall tower, Mr. Barnett joked.
If the opposition doesn’t stall the project, the building will be ready for occupancy in another three years when, presumably, the market is hot again.
Still, Jonathan Miller, chief executive at Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers and Consultants, contends, “The era is absolutely over for the superluxury property.”
“Developers have one direction: forward,” he added. “They build until they can’t build anymore.”