It’s YMCA Vs. Madonna As West Side Girds for 41-Story Battle

Madonna wants her toddler to breathe what passes for fresh air on the West Side. So she and her neighbors in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods have joined together to fight a plan to build a 41-story tower above the West Side YMCA near the corner of West 63rd Street and Central Park West.

And so another battle for the soul of the Upper West Side is underway.

Madonna and other influential neighbors-including Gail Gregg, the wife of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times , CBS newsman Harry Smith, character actress Carol Kane and television executive Geraldine Laybourne-have thrown their support behind community groups fighting the proposal. They say the planned tower, which would be one of the tallest buildings overlooking Central Park from the west, is a serious threat to their quality of life. Residents of posh 1 Lincoln Plaza and a preservation group called Landmark West have teamed up with parents of students at the Ethical Culture School-the breeding ground of future Fieldston School students-to raise money to fight the development.

Moisha Blechman, one of Madonna’s neighbors and president of the West 64th Street Block Association, explained that the star “needs to be able to get her car there. She’d like her little girl safe without the dust in the air.” (A spokesman for Madonna relayed her only comment: that she indeed is on the side of the residents fighting the construction.) Mr. Smith, who has a 4-year-old at the Y’s Co-op Nursery School and an 8-year-old at the Ethical Culture School, noted that “we’re concerned about cranes hanging over the playground-real basic sort of stuff.” He said he made a lot of calls at the beginning of the agitation, but he has decided that there’s little that can be done. “It’s very disheartening,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything anybody can do about it. It’s got everyone stressed out. We’re just stressed-out neighbors.”

Such arguments may not impress Madonna’s newfound foes, who are not without resources. The board of directors for the YMCA of Greater New York is laden with pillars of the financial world like Goldman, Sachs & Company managing director Robert F. Cummings Jr., Paine Webber Inc. president Joseph J. Grano Jr., Lazard Frères & Company managing director J. Robert Lovejoy and Richard A. Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and newly elected chairman of the YMCA board; they voted to approve the deal last fall. The New Jersey-based real estate investment trust Vornado Realty Trust and developer David Edelstein, both known in Manhattan as aggressive developers, currently are negotiating to buy air rights from the West Side YMCA to build the tower above the YMCA’s annex, which was once the McBurney School.

For the YMCA, the deal means an $18-million windfall: Vornado and Mr. Edelstein will pay the Y about $8 million in cash and provide $10 million in capital improvements, all when its traditional fund-raising campaigns bring in only about $130,000 a year. But opponents say the Y is either greedy or misguided. They fear the construction will endanger the architectural integrity of the landmarked area-not to mention the lives of their children, who attend two nearby schools. They hold out the specter of recent construction-related accidents as evidence that the project literally is life-threatening.

“In light of what’s happened in the last year with bricks falling, people getting killed … we’re very concerned about a project of this magnitude,” said Lonnie Soury of Soury Communications Inc., the public relations firm hired by neighborhood residents. “There’s zero room for error,” said Sophia de Boer, treasurer of the West 64th Street Block Association. “Any mistakes at the construction site, and lives will be at risk.”

Up on the Roof

Nina Gray, an architectural historian, has a big problem with the tower on artistic grounds (she described the project as “stuffing a skyscraper into an airshaft”), but as a parent of 6-year-old Alexander, a kindergartner at Ethical Culture, and 4-year-old Julia, who attends the Y preschool, the proposal hits closer to home.

“It would have a terrible impact on Ethical Culture-the children won’t be allowed to play on the roof,” she asserted. “The little children spend one and a half hours on the roof every day; it’s a critical part of the curriculum. Not being able to do that is a drag.”

The residents’ battleground so far has been an administrative appeals process, starting with the city’s Department of Buildings and moving then to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. The standards board held a public hearing in early June and is expected to make a ruling July 14. If the panel decides in favor of the YMCA, attorneys for the opponents say they will go to court.

The legal issue is whether a special permit of development granted to the YMCA in 1989 remains valid. The real estate market tanked just after the permit was granted, so nothing came of plans to develop the site. In 1997, with a better market, the Y shopped around for a new developer and found the team of Vornado and Mr. Edelstein.

Because a new regulation passed in 1995 put a four-year life on permits, and because that limit was applied to other permits granted before 1995, community members insist that the Y’s permit is no longer valid. And they say that under 1998 building standards, the permit would not be granted again.

But at least two city bureaucrats already have ruled otherwise, saying that the Y’s construction plans were granted a permit without a lapsing provision. With the permit still valid and air rights under negotiation, nothing would stand in the developers’ way.

Nothing except their opponents’ ample resources. According to representatives for the various groups, most of the money has been funneled to Landmark West to pay the bills and lead the fight. Landmark West president Arlene Simon contends that the power players on her team shouldn’t become the issue. When asked about how much the opposition team has raised or spent, Ms. Simon said: “The financial aspects of it are not something I’ll discuss with you. We can pay our bills, that’s really what it comes down to.”

Indeed, Landmark West is footing the bill for two attorneys and one public relations firm. As for the number of prominent people backing up the fight, Ms. Simon said that shouldn’t make a difference. “We’re dealing with [issues], not with anybody’s money or anybody’s clout,” she said.

And yet she claims that for the YMCA, money and clout are exactly the issues. “The money for them is the bottom line,” Ms. Simon said. “Public be damned, it goes back to the whole thing of greed.”

Rowena Daly, the West Side Y’s director of community relations, said it’s not a matter of greed but of being able to help the community. The West Side Y-already the largest YMCA in the world-serves about 60,000 adults and 7,000 children every year.

“This will greatly enable us to expand, to better serve the community,” she said. “They are essentially providing us with a brand-new building.” In addition to renovating existing space, the expansion would add six floors of new space: three floors for child care and three for adult programs. The existing facade of the former McBurney School would be kept intact, complying with the rules for historic landmarks.

Low-Income Housing

On another six floors would be 65 new housing units for low-income seniors and performing artists. These would be added to the Y’s 359 existing apartments. The new apartments, while built by Vornado, will be separate from the luxury condos, with the entrance through the Y. While Mr. Soury called such an arrangement “economic Jim Crow,” Ms. Daly said that it made sense because they will be part of the Y’s housing, administered by Y staff. “They’re our apartments-we would run them,” she said.

Still, residents say the Y should be able to accomplish its goals without cutting a deal with developers. They suggested the Y look to its own board to raise the money.

That 35-member board, in addition to the financiers, includes Country Living publisher Peg Farrell; Unisys Corporation president Lawrence A. Weinbach; Shelly Lazarus, chief executive of the ad firm Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide; and Frank Moseley, a partner at the powerful law firm Davis, Polk & Wardell, among many others with similarly grandiose titles.

“If everyone gave $1 million, it’s not going to affect their life style,” Ms. Blechman said.

But Ms. Daly said fund-raising campaigns don’t work that way. After a year of asking for and collecting money, the Y only came up with $130,000 for its capital campaign. She said some of the most wealthy people in the neighborhood gave as little as $1.

“People who make $10,000 tend to give more than people who make a lot of money,” she said. “If people want to give to the Y, we welcome it, we appreciate it. But it’s not anywhere near [enough], no way.”

As for the resident’s concerns about safety, Ms. Daly said the Y is working with Vornado to ensure all safety measures are taken. She said the Y has hired an outside site safety manager and precautions are being worked into the Y’s contract with Vornado.

And for some, that’s enough: The parents of the 180 children at the Y’s Co-op Nursery School voted earlier this year not to move the school once construction begins. And administrators at Ethical Culture are cooperating with the Y.

But nothing the Y says satisfies the residents and parents of students at the Ethical Culture School. They simply don’t want the project to happen.

“Why are they against the YMCA being able to serve 7,000 to 10,000 children? Why is it bad to provide affordable housing?” Ms. Daly said, her friendly P.R. demeanor cracking. “It makes me so mad when these people living in these incredibly expensive apartments are against this. It’s not like we’re Donald Trump.”

With the two-bedroom luxury apartments estimated to sell for $1.2 million each, the Donald could only wish.