Category: Blog Post


By Anne Coates,

New York, December 8, 2016 – In an unprecedented action, a Manhattan residents’ group submitted a complete application to the City of New York for a zoning change to prevent the construction of supertall residential towers in the Sutton Place area and encourage community diversity.

The application by the non-profit East River Fifties Alliance (ERFA) — co-signed by several prominent elected officials — is the first step in a months-long formal decision process that requires costly legal and consulting resources that, in almost all zoning cases, only major private real estate developers or government agencies can afford to risk. After months of preparation, the ERFA application now awaits the Department of City Planning’s review and certification to be accepted as an official filing.

ERFA is a nonprofit corporation that includes hundreds of member cooperatives, civic organizations and residents in the East Fifties dedicated to preserving community character and affordable housing.  Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Councilman Dan Garodnick, Councilman Ben Kallos and N.Y.S. Senator Liz Krueger have joined as co-applicants and are providing guidance and leadership to the rezoning effort.

Alan Kersh, ERFA President, said, “We’ve been inspired by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision for ‘One New York.’ This is a zoning change that will encourage development while keeping the low- and mid-rise character of the neighborhood intact. Our plan also increases neighborhood diversity by adding incentives to vastly increase the amount of affordable housing.”

The area between 52nd Street and 59th Street east of First Avenue is the only residential community left in New York City zoned R-10 where mid-blocks and quiet residential streets have no height controls for buildings. In most other residential districts, the City Planning Commission has replaced the 1960s-era R10 zoning designation with contextual zoning requirements that set height limits for buildings in those neighborhoods, or heights controlled through historic district protections.

In the East River Fifties, however, the R10 zoning designation, which sets no height limits and permits unlimited air rights purchases, remains in place.

At least one developer has assembled property and air rights in the East River Fifties to take advantage of R10’s lax height restrictions. In the assemblage process, the developer has removed and is demolishing affordable housing units. Using 21st century engineering technology, the developer has announced a plan to construct a 1,000-foot tall, pencil-like tower on East 58th Street. Several other “soft sites” in the neighborhood are susceptible to out-of-scale development as well.

ERFA’s mission is to stop that project and the genuine threat of several others.

Mr. Kersh added, “R10 zones throughout the city only create about 4-5% affordable units with each new development. In return for this small contribution to affordability, developers receive a 20% boost in floor area. That does not meet the city’s needs and gives away too much to developers for too little housing.”

ERFA’s formal filing today with the Department of City Planning is known as an application for a zoning text amendment.

Once the agency certifies the application as complete, it will proceed through a months-long, formal review process involving nonbinding reviews by the Community Board and Borough President and binding reviews by the City Planning Commission and City Council.   Applicants are aiming for certification in 2016.

ERFA’s plan would rezone the East River Fifties by creating a special zoning text to achieve two goals—contextual height limits and affordable housing incentives. The area would retain its R10 zoning designation, but its application would be modified on zoning lots east of First Avenue. ERFA is proposing a contextual district that would prevent supertowers through height limits and would provide greater incentives for affordable housing and design controls for wide buildings.

The developer who was planning to construct the 95-story, 1,000 foot megatower on 58th St.,  defaulted on its loan payments, resulting in the lender’s commencement of a foreclosure proceeding and the developer’s filing of a bankruptcy petition in response.  Complex litigation involving multiple parties has ensued.

The existence of that litigation does not remove the threat of a 1,000-foot-tall pencil tower on 58th Street.  By agreement of both the debtor and lender, the bankruptcy court has permitted the sale of the property under the court’s supervision.  An auction is tentatively scheduled for mid-December.  ERFA expects that once a buyer has been found and the sale completed, the new owner will resume the development effort.

Mr. Kersh said, “As long as the antiquated zoning laws that allow megatowers to be constructed in the East River Fifties residential neighborhood continue to exist, the law poses a threat to the community that it is supposed to protect.  New engineering technologies have made the construction of megatowers possible, and they are very profitable for developers because very wealthy people are willing to pay tens of millions of dollars per apartment on the high floors.  The only viable solution for the community is to change the zoning law.”

ERFA’s rezoning plan, if successful, will ensure that this site and others in the East River Fifties community will no longer permit such towers.

Councilmember Ben Kallos Gives City Council Citation to Neighbor Charles Fernandez

By Anne Coates,

December 8, 2016 — At the December 2016 Town Hall, longtime supporter and co-applicant of ERFA’s rezoning proposal NYC Councilmember Ben Kallos presented East River Fifties community member Charles Fernandez with a City Council Citation for his part in the fight in this neighborhood against out-of-scale development.

ERFA in the news: Curbed New York Reports on ERFA’s Efforts

By Anne Coates,

According to Curbed New York:  “The East River Fifties Alliance, which includes officials like City Council Members Dan Garodnick and Ben Kallos, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and neighborhood stakeholders, are not letting up on their fight against Bauhouse Group’s proposed 950-foot tower at 426-432 East 58th Street despite last week’s court ordered auction of the site due to the developer’s mounting fiscal troubles.”  For more, click here.

ERFA in the news: Wall Street Journal on the order blocking demolition on construction site on East 58th Street

By Anne Coates,

According to the WSJ: “Last Monday, a bankruptcy judge ordered the sale of the East 58th Street site, assembled by Joseph Beninati’s Bauhouse Group. But the community groups, along with elected officials,
are hoping to delay the project until a new zoning plan limiting building heights can be put into effect.

“The plan, which the groups and officials said they were ready to formally propose to the City Planning Commission as early as this week, calls for buildings in the neighborhood to be no taller than 260 feet…”The groups hope it is approved before development work begins at the site. The proposed change also could discourage bidders at the auction, which was ordered by the court following a dispute between Bauhouse Group and its lenders, led by N. Richard Kalikow.

“The zoning change isn’t the only hurdle the project faces. On Wednesday, the Department of Buildings blocked a permit needed to complete demolition of the site, after conducting an audit requested by [Councilmember Ben] Kallos.” To read more, click here.

Sutton Area Rezoning: A Race to the Finish – by Alan Kersh, President of the East River Fifties Alliance (ERFA)

By Anne Coates,

When the East River Fifties Alliance (ERFA) embarked on a volunteer-led effort to rezone the Sutton community, we knew it was our only chance to prevent a 900-foot megatower fzoningrom being developed on East 58 Street – and to prevent the construction of additional megatowers on other sites just blocks away.

We also knew that we’d entered an ominous race against time – because, to achieve our goal, the rezoning must take effect before the developer substantially completes a foundation.

While the 58th Street site has been fraught with problems, from the developer declaring bankruptcy, to multiple lawsuits, to an order last month by a US Bankruptcy Court Judge ordering the sale of the project to a new developer, ERFA has been doggedly making its way through the City’s planning process, keeping our eye on the prize: the long-term preservation of our neighborhood’s human-scale character and livability.

Here’s why we have a good chance to get our rezoning approved in time to prevent the construction of megatowers in our neighborhood:

  • The City knows we’re serious. Since last January, when we submitted our pre-application statement to the Department of City Planning, our attorneys and planners have had numerous meetings with DCP; it is clear from these negotiations that our proposal is front and center at DCP and that the City recognizes that megatowers may not be appropriate for the Sutton community.
  • Our proposal includes substantial affordable housing. The City is balancing its desire for more housing production and new construction with ERFA’s desire for more reasonable height controls. ERFA’s proposal, in fact, has the potential to more than triple the amount of affordable housing built as part of any new developments in the neighborhood as compared to the status quo zoning.
  • Our application is on schedule. We are about conclude a key stage in the process – the Environmental Assessment Statement – after which we will seek “certification” by the City Planning Commission, an acknowledgement by the CPC that that we’ve submitted all of the required documents and our application is complete. Certification triggers the final stage of the process, the formal review by Community Board 6, the Manhattan Borough President, the City Planning Commission and the City Council. If our application receives certification this fall, as anticipated, the full review process should be completed sometime this spring.
  • Key decision-makers are on our side. As our application goes through the formal review process, it is to our advantage that various persons within City government who will be involved in that review have already expressed support for us. Community Board 6 has spoken favorably about the desirability of a zoning change for our neighborhood, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Members Ben Kallos and Dan Garodnick (along with State Senator Liz Krueger) are actually co-applicants on ERFA’s rezoning proposal.

The final steps of the formal review process are that ERFA’s rezoning proposal, to be adopted, must be approved by the City Planning Commission, the City Council and the Mayor.

To this end, ERFA will launch another public outreach effort to rally as many forces as possible to endorse our initiative – including Sutton area residents and businesses, important civic organizations and influential New Yorkers. Indeed, we intend to let our elected officials know of the vast amount of support for ERFA’s proposal.

A rezoning is a $1.5 million endeavor, and ERFA is actively raising funds for the effort. If readers wish to contribute, they can do so on-line at or send a check made payable to the East River Fifties Alliance to ERFA, Attn: Donna Chin, 205 East 42nd Street, 6th floor, New York, NY 10017.