Crain's New York Council takes a page from developers' handbook against Sutton Place tower by Joe Anuta

Crain's New York
Council takes a page from developers' handbook against Sutton Place tower
Joe Anuta

Last week City Councilman Ben Kallos shepherded through his chamber a 10-block rezoning of the Sutton Place area that will result in shorter and squatter buildings than are currently allowed. He said they would fit in with the varied character of the tony enclave without sacrificing too much of the square footage that could be built in the future. While that sounds like a reasonable proposal, his motivation was far different. Kallos and a group of residents known as the East River Fifties Alliance wanted to zone out of existence a luxury condo tower being built along East 58th Street. To do so, they pushed the limits of the city's land-use rules in the same way that developers are often criticized for doing.

So blatant was their gambit that the City Planning Commission put a clause in the rezoning to protect the 800-foot project. But Kallos removed it and then fast-tracked his legislation's approval to ensure the developer, Gamma Real Estate, could not complete a foundation in time to squeak in under the old zoning rules.

When it comes to as-of-right projects like Sutton 58, developers are usually the ones testing the flexibility of the city's zoning and building codes. Council members and neighborhood groups are more often confined to arguing that the spirit of the process is being violated if they can't mount a credible legal argument. This time, it was the other way around.

"In order to accelerate the process so that the project can be stopped 15 days before its completion," Gamma said after last Thursday's vote, "the council has allowed multiple violations of [its] own rules."

While the council might have bent the rules by curtailing the public review process, it does not appear to have broken them. Regardless, the scenario is not likely to repeat itself, and Gamma will likely win an appeal and be able to build the project months down the road.

Yet the episode shows that lawmakers, neighborhoods and developers are usually willing to use any tools that happen to be at their disposal in the bare-knuckle brawl that is New York development—even if those tools happen to be wielded more often by the other side.

A version of this article appears in the December 4, 2017, print issue of Crain's New York Business.