Community Boards

Hell’s Kitchen High-Rise

Is Wake-Up Call for Residents

When Donald Trump-the developer community boards love to hate-erected his eponymous, 861-foot high Trump World Tower on First Avenue between 47th and 48th streets, the lawsuits came pouring in. Walter Cronkite was up in arms. Then–City Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose proposed sweeping changes in the zoning code to restrict building height throughout the city. But the lawsuits against Mr. Trump failed when the courts deemed that his complex transfer of development rights from other properties (which allowed him to build to unprecedented residential height) was kosher. Mr. Cronkite has been forced to co-exist with Mr. Trump’s $360 million, 72-story behemoth. And Mr. Rose’s ambitious zoning revision-the Unified Bulk Program-is dead and buried. But while the world’s tallest residential edifice failed to prompt tougher height restrictions in the zoning code, a relatively tiny, 18-story building across town may just do the job.

Developer Gotham Construction’s planned residential tower on the corner of 55th Street and Ninth Avenue has not triggered lawsuits (though Community Board 4 is definitely considering its options), nor have any celebrities thrown fund-raiser cocktail parties to finance resistance. But that might not matter: The site in question is located inside what’s known as the Preservation Area of the Special Clinton District, a zoning section of Hell’s Kitchen focusing on Ninth and Tenth avenues from 43rd Street to 56th Street. The district was designated nearly 30 years ago to preserve the low-rise character of the neighborhood, where buildings average five to six stories, or only about one-third the height of the Gotham project.

Like Mr. Trump, Gotham obtained the right to build a bigger, more profitable building than the zoning would otherwise have permitted by acquiring the “air rights” from neighboring, low-rise properties. The developer is piling most of the additional square footage from the “air rights” transfer into a tower on the Ninth Avenue side of the lot-a strategy that’s not making Gotham new friends in that part of town. “Eighteen stories on this site is an affront to this neighborhood-it’s totally out of scale,” Anna Hayes Levin, chair of Community Board 4’s Clinton Land Use & Zoning committee, told The Observer . “It’s brazen, it’s arrogant. [Gotham is] just kind of thumbing their nose at the community.”

But Gotham’s vice president of development, Ken Miller, blames the zoning for the building’s height. “We’re not looking to be antagonistic in the least bit,” Mr. Miller told The Observer. “It’s not like we chose to put the bulk on the avenue instead of mid-block-you can’t do that,” he said, referring to the 66-foot height limit the Special Clinton District specifies along most streets, while setting no height limits along the avenues.

Board 4’s zoning wonks don’t quite see it that way. “The whole objective these days is to build residential apartments with views” in order to command higher rents, Board 4 district manager Anthony Borelli told The Observer . “I don’t believe [Gotham is] fully taking advantage of the height” permitted on the 55th Street side, he said. Ms. Levin agreed. “They’re just being piggy about the amount of [bulk] they’re trying to pile onto that site.”

Additionally, the board has received complaints and pleas from neighbors. “Please do something,” area resident Jonathan Walker asked the board at its Jan. 8 meeting. “Reconfigure the square footage; bring down the tower.”

In response, Board 4 sent out three letters-all unanimously approved by its members at the meeting-protesting the 55th Street project. One asked the city’s Department of Buildings to re-review Gotham’s application and revoke its permits-which were issued in December-if any irregularities come to light. But Gotham is already pouring the foundation of its $65 million, 172,000-square-foot building, and the board isn’t hopeful that the permits will be revoked or that any significant changes to the project can be made. (Gotham has, however, tentatively agreed to change the building’s brick color from white to something closer to the red prevalent in the neighborhood.)

The board is now focused on trying to prevent similar developments elsewhere in the district. They have identified close to 30 other properties, such as the Hess gas station on Tenth Avenue at 45th Street, where “out-of-character” developments could eventually go up.

In its letter to City Planning protesting the Gotham tower, the board referenced these other “vulnerable” sites and asked the agency to impose height limits along the avenues in the Preservation Area of the Special Clinton District. “If anything, this has been a wake-up call to us and City Planning about a fix that needs to be put into the zoning,” said Ms. Levin. City Planning spokeswoman Robyn Stein told The Observer that its planners “are aware of the issue” and are checking into how the board’s concerns can be addressed. “It’s on our radar,” Ms. Stein said.

-Karina Lahni

Jan. 23: Board 2, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Cafeteria, 6:30 p.m., 979-2272.

Jan. 28: Board 3, P.S. 20, 166 Essex Street, 6:30 p.m., 533-5300; Board 12, Columbia University, Black Building, Alumni Auditorium, 650 West 168th Street, 7 p.m., 568-8500.