'Off With the Floors!'

Community organizers, elected officials celebrate tentative victory after judge orders as many as 20 floors to be lopped off 200 Amsterdam project

17 Feb 2020 | 03:34

Olive Freud had reason to celebrate on Monday morning. After spearheading a years-long neighborhood campaign against the 668-foot tower that has been constructed on the Upper West Side, Freud, the president of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, prevailed — at least for the time being — with an order from a State Supreme Court judge for the building’s developers to remove as many as 20 floors or more from the project.

“I want to thank the community. It’s true that I started it, but you all came with me,” Freud said of her victory at a packed press conference at the corner of 69th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, across the street from the 59-story tower. “I think this is the end of very tall buildings. I think New York has said enough to this — to living in the shadows.”

Freud and opponents of the tower have argued that the developers, SJP Properties and Mitsui Fudosan America, exploited a zoning loophole to create a “gerrymandered,” 39-sided zoning lot in order to build an exceptionally tall building in a neighborhood where 20-story buildings are the norm. Judge W. Franc Perry’s order may very well set a precedent for development in the city if it’s not turned over on the developers’ appeal, which they have pledged to do.

Michelle Goldstein, the president of the Municipal Art Society of New York, which was one of the advocacy groups that brought the suit against the developers, believed that the impact of the judge’s decision would indeed be seen in future development in Manhattan.

“This is not just a victory for the Upper West Side,” said Goldstein. “This is a victory for neighborhoods all across New York City because it is a clarion call that if you twist the law, that ultimately you are going to get stopped.”

The Need to Change Zoning Laws

Freud and Goldstein were flanked by politicians at just about every level of government at Monday’s press conference. Elected officials on hand included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Comptroller Scott Stringer, assembly members Richard Gottfried and Linda Rosenthal as well as council members Helen Rosenthal and Ben Kallos.

The politicians were complimentary of Freud’s dedication and leadership in this battle against the 200 Amsterdam project, and echoed one another in calls for fewer luxury condo developments and more affordable housing, as well as the need to change the zoning laws.

“I don’t know what these developers were thinking. You’re not ever supposed to violate the zoning law under Olive Freud’s watch,” said Stringer. “If the entrance fee into this city is a $2 or $3 million condo ... then this city has to realign itself with the reality of our community.”

Nadler invoked the president, saying he and others had been fighting the Trump development for 30 years, and that the judge’s ruling was a partial victory.

“This city cannot be a ghetto for rich people,” said Nadler, who then began a refrain of “Off with the floors!” in reference to the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.

The politicians were largely steadfast in their belief that Perry’s ruling would stand at the appellate court, but as work to complete the tower was still ongoing Monday, it prompted questions from the press about the elected officials’ certainty of the outcome.

“If you look at the 39 ways he carved up a zoning lot, it’s wrong,” Brewer said. “So I think that this will stand, but we don’t know.”

"Where the Sausage Gets Made"

The officials repeated that the building permits should never have been approved by the city’s Department of Buildings and then upheld by the Board of Standards and Appeals — agreeing that new personnel is needed in these positions, which are appointed by the mayor.

“I think what everyone is saying is, this doesn't have to be this way. The mayor of New York City, with a with a City Planning Commission that he appoints and controls, could step in and say enough is enough,” said Stringer, who is expected to run for mayor in 2021. “We need to appoint a City Planning Commission to finally tackle the issues of real estate, land use and zoning. It's where the sausage gets made. It’s where people get taken advantage of. And quite frankly, the prices that we see right now, because city government has failed to act, that we are now building these monstrosities that only a few thousand people in the whole world could afford to live in.”

Nadler took the opportunity to endorse Stringer’s candidacy, saying he would be the candidate to change the culture of development in Manhattan.

“The only actual guarantee [this ends] is if we elect a good mayor,” Nadler said. “The actual guarantee is to elect Scott Stringer mayor.”

“This is not just a victory for the Upper West Side. This is a victory for neighborhoods all across New York City." Michelle Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York.