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ZONING FOR SALE
On April 2, 2007, Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI) submitted an application to the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) for 8 variances to allow them to construct luxury condominiums on top of a brand-new community house on the mid-block of West 70 th Street, about 100-150 feet west of Central Park West.
The new building, located immediately adjacent to CSI’s Classical-style Individual Landmark (the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue on Central Park West), would be the tallest mid-block structure ever allowed to be built since the creation of the contextual zoning district (1984) and Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District (1990), both intended to protect our neighborhood from out-of-scale development.
CSI seeks the equivalent of “spot-zoning” to construct a 105’-tall building, more than twice as tall as the brownstones that define this and most other mid-blocks on the Upper West Side – low-rise, human-scale blocks that are specifically called out for protection in both the 1984 Contextual Zoning Report and the 1990 Historic District Report.
Like many low-rise cultural and religious institutions lining Central Park West (for example the New-York Historical Society at 76th Street, the Society for Ethical Culture at 64th Street, and the former First Church of Christ, Scientist at 96th Street), CSI has long sought to exploit its real estate through the development of a luxury tower that would compromise the character of this Landmark, the surrounding Historic District and the rules governing sound planning for the Upper West Side. Now CSI argues that, instead of building over the Landmark synagogue, it wants to transfer air rights to construct a large, mixed-use building right next to the Landmark, on one of the most pristine, brownstone blocks in the Historic District.
CSI claims that the purpose of the new building is to address “severe circulation limitations,” “the physical obsolescence and the ill-configured floorplans” of its current, 1950s community house and 1897 synagogue. Yet, CSI’s application demonstrates that it could construct an up-to-date community house to meet its programmatic needs without breaching the zoning laws. Indeed, CSI basically solves the claimed issues of “circulation” and “obsolescence” on just part of the first floor of the community house. But, instead of paying for the new facility out of its own pocket, CSI wants to build 4 floors of market-rate condos as a “partial source of funding” that would essentially shift the cost of new construction to the community.
CSI must prove to the BSA that it faces a “unique hardship.” But, in fact, nothing distinguishes this site from hundreds of other sites in the Historic District. Approval of CSI’s application for special exemptions from the laws protecting our neighborhood from overdevelopment would trigger a “domino effect” along Central Park West and throughout the city. The New-York Historical Society, 980 Madison Avenue, the Whitney Museum and the General Theological Seminary are just some examples of other nonprofit and for-profit developers who, eager to exploit their own sites, already recognize CSI’s proposed building as a precedent opening the door for future development.
Press on Shearith Israel and West 70th Street
Contact LANDMARK WEST! 212-496-8110
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