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 52nd Street and East 59th Street, east of First Avenue) residents, co-operatives, and condominiums. The group’s aim is to reform New York City’s zoning laws 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 East 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 is trying to effect a zoning change that will 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).
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 New York Department of City Planning (“DCP”) to create new zoning regulations for the East River Fifties Area. The existing R10 zoning — which does not impose height limits on residential development — would be modified to apply tower-on-a-base (“TOB”) requirements throughout the East River Fifties. At present, TOB requirements apply only to avenues and wide streets, not narrow streets.
Q. How would ERFA’s rezoning proposal prevent megatowers?
A. ERFA’s proposal would apply 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 would be modified to make them suitable for narrow streets. Those rules, as modified, would provide, among other things, that at least 45 percent 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 would 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 would result in buildings that are no more than 31 to 35 stories tall.
Q. Does ERFA’s proposal allow commercial development?
A. No. Like the existing R10 district, the proposed new district would 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. Would adoption of ERFA’s proposed zoning change encourage the production of affordable housing?
A.Under ERFA’s proposal, developers would be eligible to receive bonus FAR (floor area ratio)** by utilizing the bonus structure currently 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 would be required to provide in exchange for receiving bonus floor area would be unchanged from what is now required under existing zoning. Under both the current zoning and the proposed 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 will ERFA’s rezoning plan mean for the community?
A.The rezoning would protect the East River 50s community from excessively tall buildings. No megatower could be developed within the area extending roughly from East 52nd 52nd to East 59th Street, east of First Avenue.
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.
Q. What will happen to ERFA’s proposal now?
A.The City Planning Commission conducted a public hearing on the rezoning application on October 18, 2017, and is expected to vote shortly on whether to approve it. If the Commission approves the application, it will then go on to the City Council for approval. ERFA expects the entire process to be completed during 2017.
Q. What makes ERFA’s rezoning proposal so special?
A. ERFA’s rezoning proposal is a landmark in community-based planning. This is one of the few instances where a nonprofit, community-based organization has 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 2,500 individuals residing in more than 500 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 consisting of town hall meetings, social media, sign-up tables, rallies, and petition signing and letter-writing efforts. ERFA’s website, erfa.nyc
is an important source of information and updates.
Q. Do elected officials support ERFA’s rezoning effort?
A. Not only do elected officials support ERFA’s rezoning plan, four elected officials have actually signed on to the plan, which is very unusual, and shows 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 have all signed on to the proposal. ERFA’s efforts are 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
. Since acquiring the property, Gamma has been proceeding with efforts to develop it along the same lines that the Bauhouse Group had started. They have completed demolition of three existing buildings and have begun constructing a foundation for an 856-foot tower
on the site. As long as we have the current zoning, there’s nothing preventing the current or a future developer from filing for an even taller building through higher ceilings or additional air rights transfers. If Gamma completes construction of the foundation before the proposed zoning change is adopted, their building plan would be “grandfathered” under the old zoning and they would be permitted to complete construction. We still have an opportunity to obtain a zoning change in time to prevent a megatower at the 58th
Street location, but it is clear that there is a new urgency to replace the antiquated zoning laws that allow megatowers in our residential neighborhood. ERFA’s rezoning plan, if successful, will apply to the 58th
Street site as well as the rest of the East River Fifties community.
Q.Is 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 current application 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 is required under the 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 ultimate 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 are 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.