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 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 mandate height limits and encourage affordable housing. After submission of ERFA’s proposal, those professionals worked with the DCP staff to produce various materials, such as draft zoning text, development projections and an Environmental Assessment (required under state and city environmental laws), which the DCP requires to complete a formal rezoning application. On June 5, 2017, the City Planning Commission certified that the application was complete. Certification cleared the way for a formal public review which, if successful, will culminate in approval of the rezoning application by the City Council.
Q. What are the key elements of ERFA’s rezoning proposal?
A. ERFA is proposing contextual regulations that would prevent megatowers through height limits and would include incentives for affordable housing construction and design controls for wide buildings. While ERFA expects that its proposal will evolve throughout the review process, here are the current details:
The new zoning regulations proposed by ERFA for the designated East River Fifties Area would allow for height limits of 210 feet for buildings with frontage on narrow streets and 235 feet for buildings with frontage on wide streets. Base FAR** for residential or community facility buildings would remain at 10.0, unchanged from the current R10 zoning.
ERFA’s proposal would also create façade articulation requirements. What is façade articulation? This refers to the many street frontage design elements, both horizontal and vertical, that help create a streetscape of interest. The appropriate scale for articulation is often a function of the size of the building and the adjacent public spaces including sidewalks, planting zones, and roadways. Proper façade articulation can create an environment that is friendly, safe and an integrated part of the neighborhood around it. (Read more about façade articulation here). In our rezoning plan, in order to reduce the potential development of long, flat unfriendly and inappropriate façades, ERFA proposes to require façade articulation at various intervals.
Inclusionary Housing Designated Area (IHDA)
ERFA proposes to designate the East River Fifties Area as an Inclusionary Housing Designated Area (IHDA), and thus provide an incentive for the voluntary construction of affordable housing. In exchange for reserving 1.6 FAR (about 13% of total residential floor area) for people earning at or below 80 percent of area median income (AMI), developers would receive a 2.0 FAR residential bonus. As a further incentive to the creation of affordable units, participating developments would also be entitled to a total FAR of 13.0 instead of the current 12.0 FAR, and an increased height limit to accommodate the additional FAR. Buildings that take advantage of the IH bonus could build up to 260 feet on both narrow and wide streets.
 Because residential FAR is capped at 12.0 by New York State Law, at least 1.0 FAR of any 13 FAR building must be community facility space.
The 3.0 FAR bonus would consist of 2.0 FAR of residential and 1.0 FAR of community facility for a total allowable FAR of 13.0. Buildings that take advantage of the IH bonus could build up to 260 feet on both narrow and wide streets.
**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. 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. Under the ERFA rezoning, how many units of affordable housing will be created?
A.Right now, R10 zones throughout the city, like ours, only create about 4-5% affordable units with each new development. That does not meet the city’s needs and gives away too much to developers. Our community embraces the Mayor’s goal of creating affordable housing in new developments, and our new zoning plan supports that goal. If fully implemented, the ERFA plan would more than double the amount of affordable housing in new developments in our neighborhood.
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. ERFA has identified several such sites in the rezoning area (including the site on East 58th Street which Gamma Real Estate has acquired from the Bauhouse Group.)
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 52nd to 59th Street, east of 1st Avenue. Importantly, the new zoning has the potential to more than double the amount of affordable housing built as part of any new developments in the neighborhood as compared to the status quo zoning.
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 will conduct a public hearing on the rezoning application and then vote 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 is ERFA building 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 nearly 2,200 individuals residing in more than 351 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 recently filed an application with the Department of Buildings to construct an 856-foot tower
on the site. Although the DOB has not yet approved plans for the construction of that building, it has issued a permit to excavate and construct a foundation. ERFA objected to, and has now appealed, the issuance of that permit. Nevertheless, excavation work has commenced. And, 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. While we still have an opportunity to obtain a zoning change in time to prevent a megatower at the 58th
Street location, 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 ensure that the 58th
Street site and others in the East River Fifties community will no longer permit such towers.
Q.The City Planning Commission has certified ERFA’s rezoning proposal. Does that mean ERFA’s work is done and the rezoning will now take effect?
A. No. Certification by the City Planning Commission means that the Commission has determined that ERFA’s rezoning application is complete — that the rezoning application includes all required materials and therefore can proceed through the formal public review process. To become effective, the application must go through the four steps of that process: review and recommendation by the Community Board, review and recommendation by the Borough President, then back to the City Planning Commission for a decision on the merits of the proposal, and finally approval by the City Council. The first steps of the process have now been completed. ERFA made presentations to Community Board 6, its Land Use Committee, and the Borough President at hearings held in mid-June. On June 27th the Community Board unanimously adopted a resolution supporting ERFA’s rezoning application, and on June 28th, the Borough President wrote to the City Planning Commission recommending that ERFA’s rezoning application be approved. The two final steps, approval by the City Planning Commission and the City Council, remain to be accomplished.