Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is the East River 50s Alliance (ERFA)?
A.The East River 50s Alliance is a nonprofit 501(c)(4) corporation founded in 2015 by East River Fifties (the area between East 51st Street and East 59th Street, east of  First Avenue) residents, co-operatives, and condominiums. The group’s aim is to prevent out of scale development within the abovementioned area. The threat of such inappropriate development became apparent when the Bauhouse Group publicized a plan to construct a 1,000-foot megatower on East 58th Street between First Avenue and Sutton Place.  Residents of the community realized that such a grossly out-of-scale building and similar “pencil tower” buildings that might be proposed by other developers on “soft sites” would threaten the fabric of this residential neighborhood.
Q. What is a megatower?
A. A “megatower” or “supertower” is a building that is extremely tall in relation to the size of its footprint. Such buildings are also sometimes referred to as “pencil towers” or “needle towers” due to their shape and their extremely disproportionate height in comparison with surrounding buildings. A number of megatowers — 432 Park Avenue and 157 West 57th St. for example — can now be seen in the area just south of Central Park.
Q. Why did megatowers suddenly appear on the cityscape?
A. New engineering technologies have made the construction of such buildings 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.
Q. Why does ERFA object to construction of megatowers in the East River Fifties?
A. Construction of any megatower in the midst of our quiet neighborhood of predominantly mid-rise buildings would distort the character and sense of place of this iconic and well-loved residential community and would discourage the community diversity we value. The potential problems, both during the construction phase and after completion, are especially pronounced if the building were to be erected on a narrow side street, such as the area on East 58th Street where three multi-family buildings were recently demolished by a developer seeking to construct a megatower in their place.  ERFA proposed a zoning change to encourage the construction of housing on those lots and other nearby soft sites which would serve as residences for people who actually live and work in the city – real housing for real people — rather than as real estate holdings for absentee owners who would leave the apartments unoccupied most of the time (such as what has happened with megatowers elsewhere in the city).  Although the proposed zoning change recently became law, the possibility that a megatower may be constructed at the 58th Street site still remains because the developer had begun construction of a foundation before the new zoning law was adopted and is now claiming that, notwithstanding the new zoning law, the degree of alleged progress made prior to its enactment entitles the developer to construct the full building.  Our evidence confirms that the degree of work completed on the foundation prior to enactment of the new zoning law does not justify the construction of a megatower building.
Q. What has ERFA done to keep megatowers out of the neighborhood and keep the community livable?
A. ERFA commissioned outstanding lawyers, planners and land-use experts to prepare and submit a proposal to the NYC Department of City Planning to create new zoning regulations for the East River Fifties area. The proposal called for modifying the existing R10 zoning — which did not impose height limits on residential development — so as to apply tower-on-a-base (“TOB”) requirements throughout the East River Fifties. ERFA’s proposal was approved by the City Planning Commission and then enacted into law by the City Council on November 30, 2017.  Under the previous zoning, TOB requirements applied only to avenues and wide streets, not narrow streets.
Q. How does the new zoning prevent megatowers?
A. The new zoning law applies tower-on-a-base (“TOB”) requirements throughout the East River Fifties.  Although TOB rules do not dictate a specific height limit, they create what is known as a “functional height limit” by imposing a variety of rules that govern the sizes and shapes of buildings. TOB’s so-called “packing rules” that normally apply to the avenues and wide streets have been modified to make them suitable for narrow streets. Those modified rules provide, among other things, that at least 45% of the total floor area permitted on a zoning lot must be located in stories located either partially or entirely below a height of 150 feet.  The height of buildings will also be controlled by TOB rules governing “tower coverage.”  Further, TOB imposes rules and limitations on a developer’s ability to assemble air rights through the use of zoning lot mergers.  ERFA’s planners estimate that the modified TOB rules will result in buildings that are no more than 31-35 stories tall.
Q. Does the new zoning allow commercial development?”
A.No. Like the previous R10 zoning, the new zoning rules allow only residential uses and community uses, like day care centers and medical offices, keeping the residential and non-commercial nature of the district intact.
Q. Does the new zoning encourage the production of affordable housing?
A. Under the new zoning rules, developers are eligible to receive bonus FAR (floor area ratio)** by utilizing the bonus structure in place under the 1987 Inclusionary Housing program for R10 zoned districts. To put it simply, the amount and location of affordable housing that developers are required to provide in exchange for receiving bonus floor area is unchanged from what was  required under the previous zoning. Under both the previous zoning and the new zoning, a developer’s base FAR (the amount of floor area that may be built if the developer chooses not to include affordable housing) is 10, and the developer can add up to 2 FAR by including affordable housing, to achieve a maximum of 12 FAR.
**Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the area of its zoning lot. Under the NYC Zoning Resolution, each zoning district is assigned an FAR which, when multiplied by the lot area of any zoning lot within that district, produces the maximum amount of floor area allowable for a building on that zoning lot. For example, in a district where the maximum permitted FAR is 10, a building constructed on a 10,000 sq. ft. zoning lot could contain up to 100,000 sq. ft. of floor area. Find a more complete answer and a visual representation of FAR here.
Q. What is a 'soft site?'
A. Soft sites are lots that are vacant or built out at far below what existing zoning would allow, and therefore tend to be the most viable lots for redevelopment (according to NYU’s Furman Center).These sites may not have a specific development planned, but may reasonably be expected to be developed in the not too distant future.
Q. What does the City’s adoption of ERFA’s rezoning plan mean for the community?
A.TThe rezoning protects the East River 50s community from excessively tall buildings.  No megatower can be constructed within the area extending roughly from 51st to 59th Street, east of 1st Avenue.  Notwithstanding the foregoing, the developer is seeking to “grandfather” its building on East 58th St. under the old zoning based upon alleged progress made on the foundation prior to enactment of the new zoning law.  Our evidence confirms that the foundation was not close to completion and thus cannot possibly constitute a basis for grandfathering the proposed building under the old zoning law.
Q. Doesn’t the City usually take the lead to rezone areas that no longer seem appropriately zoned?
A.Yes. In fact, during the Bloomberg administration, around 10% of the city was rezoned through the initiative of the Department of City Planning. But any individual, group, or developer can also propose a change in a zoning designation.  ERFA did exactly that, and ERFA’s proposed rezoning of the East River Fifties became law when it was adopted by the City Council on November 30, 2017.
Q. What made ERFA’s rezoning proposal so special?
A. ERFA’s rezoning proposal was a landmark in community-based planning. It is one of the few instances where a nonprofit, community-based organization proposed, commissioned and financed such considerable legal, planning, environmental, zoning, urban design, and public awareness efforts for the purpose of advancing a rezoning proposal.
Q. How has ERFA built support for this cause?
A. ERFA’s goals have been endorsed by the owners of 45 buildings in the community (co-op boards, condo boards, and other building owners) and over 2,700 individuals residing in more than 550 buildings both within and outside of the proposed rezoning area. In addition, ERFA has gotten the endorsement of such important civic organizations as Sutton Area Community Inc., the Municipal Art Society of New York, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, Kips Bay Association, CIVITAS and LANDMARKWEST!. ERFA continues to build such support by running an active community awareness and public education program.  ERFA’s website, erfa.nyc is an important source of information and updates.
Q. Did elected officials support ERFA’s rezoning effort?
A. Not only did elected officials support ERFA’s rezoning plan, four elected officials actually signed on to the plan – which was very unusual – and showed particularly robust support for the plan. Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, Council Member Ben Kallos, Council Member Dan Garodnick and State Senator Liz Krueger all signed on to the proposal. ERFA’s efforts were additionally endorsed by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Assemblyman Dan Quart.
Q. Where can I learn more about the City’s Zoning Resolution and specific zoning sites?
A. The City’s  Zoning and Land Use website, www.nyc.gov/zoning, is a great source of information and includes zoning and land use maps and other information for every part of the city.
Q. There have been reports that Gamma Real Estate has acquired the 58th Street site where the Bauhouse Group was planning to construct the 1,000 ft. megatower. Is there still reason to be concerned that a megatower might be built there?
A. Yes, absolutely!  The threat is as great as ever.  After acquiring the property, Gamma proceeded with efforts to develop it along the same lines that the Bauhouse Group had started. Gamma completed demolition of three existing buildings and began constructing a foundation for a megatower on the site.  Because Gamma had filed plans for the megatower with the Dept. of Buildings – describing a building over 800 feet tall — and was able to work on a foundation for that building for several months before the zoning change proposed by ERFA became law, it is poised to pursue an application to the Board of Standards and Appeals in which it will seek to have its building plan “grandfathered” under the old zoning.  If the BSA grants such approval, Gamma will have a right to construct the planned building.  In order to gain such approval, however, Gamma must convince the BSA that approval of its application is warranted by the circumstances.  ERFA will oppose BSA’s granting of such approval.
Q. Was ERFA’s proposal to apply “tower-on-a-base zoning requirements to the East River Fifties the first rezoning proposal that ERFA submitted to the City?
A. No. The application to apply “tower-on-a-base” zoning requirements to the East River Fifties replaced an earlier application in which ERFA had sought a rezoning that would have set an absolute height limit of 260 feet for new construction and would have required developers to produce more affordable housing in exchange for receiving bonus floor area than was required under the then-existing zoning.  That application was certified by the City Planning Commission (“CPC”) on June 5, 2017.  However, certification is only an acknowledgement by the Commission that an application is complete; it does not provide assurance that the Commission will ultimately vote in favor of approving it.  At the time the application was certified, the Department of City Planning (“DCP”), which serves as the Commission’s staff, expressed numerous concerns and indicated that they would likely recommend against approval of the application when it later came up for a vote.  Although ERFA did not agree with DCP’s analysis, it became clear to ERFA’s leadership, as well as the elected officials who were co-applicants on the proposal, that the application faced likely rejection by CPC if it were to be brought to a vote.  Following public feedback from CPC Chair Marisa Lago illustrating a path forward, ERFA submitted a new application to DCP calling for tower-on-a-base requirements rather than an absolute height limit. The four elected officials who were co-applicants on the earlier application were also co-applicants on the new application.  After the new application was certified on October 2, 2017, ERFA’s original, related application, about which DCP had raised concerns, was withdrawn.
Q. Since the zoning change that ERFA proposed has now become law, how is it possible that a megatower could still be built within the rezoned area?
A. No. The NYC Zoning Resolution – the law that governs zoning changes throughout the City – addresses the issue of what happens if the zoning of a neighborhood is changed at a time when a developer has begun, but not completed, a project in the neighborhood.  Should the developer be permitted to continue constructing the building as if the zoning had not changed (colloquially known as “grandfathering”), or should the developer be required to comply with the new zoning?  The Zoning Resolution provides that if a developer had planned to construct a building which would have been permitted under the old zoning law but would not comply with the new law, and if the developer has completed 80% of the work on the foundation for that building before the zoning change was enacted,  the developer may be able to obtain permission from the City to complete construction of the building in accordance with plans that were filed with the Dept. of Buildings prior to the zoning change.  The developer can seek such permission by applying to the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals (“BSA”).  In deciding whether to approve the developer’s request, BSA takes a number of factors into consideration and holds public hearings before making a decision.  Our evidence confirms that the developer’s work on the foundation at the 58th St. site was well short of the 80% threshold at the time of the zoning amendment.  Nonetheless, the developer has been actively engaged in work claimed to be necessary to protect neighboring buildings.  And it is our belief that the developer will attempt to pass off the protective work used in order to shore up neighboring buildings as a basis for arguing that the foundation was more than 80% complete at the time of the new zoning law.
Q. After the City Council enacted the zoning change for the East River Fifties, the Deptartment of Buildings required construction work to stop at the site on East 58th Street where a developer had planned to build a megatower. But work on the building’s foundation has resumed. Does that mean that the developer will be permitted to construct the megatower?
A. No.  The Department of Buildings (“DOB”) allowed additional work on the foundation due to the DOB’s concern that neighboring buildings might be structurally compromised in the absence of the protective work.  However, it appears that the developer is attempting to perform work that goes far beyond merely safeguarding the surrounding buildings, and is trying to create the false impression that the foundation was 80% or more completed prior to the enactment of the new zoning law.  It is for this reason that we must remain vigilant and contest the developer’s submissions to the BSA at every opportunity.