Barnett on Riverside Center: ‘There’s Only So Much We Can Give Up’

gary barnett roland li Barnett on Riverside Center: ‘There’s Only So Much We Can Give Up’Extell Development presented on Thursday night its plan for the massive, mixed-use development Riverside Center on the Upper West Side, opening what will likely be a contentious seven-month public review process.

Gary Barnett, CEO of Extell, said that financing had not been secured for the 3 million-square-foot proposal, which would span 59th Street to 61st Street between West End Avenue and the West Side Highway. Mr. Barnett repeatedly cited the economic downturn as a damper for Extell’s expected profits from the development, and was resistant in the face of opposition from local residents.

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“Putting too much burden on the project will cause nothing to move forward,” he said, referring to the community’s numerous desired changes that he said would damage the project’s economic viability.

“There’s only so much we can give up,” said Mr. Barnett. “The construction costs are extraordinarily high because of infrastructure.”

For instance, local residents oppose the opening of an automobile dealership, which Extell contends is one of the crucial profitable parts of the development, which will cost millions to build. Extell representatives said there has been strong interest from carmakers to lease the showcase space.

The company has not received commitments from retail tenants, but said that it is seeking local businesses that provide basic amenities to residents, such as clothing and food stores. Extell originally had interest from Costco to run a big box retail store, but locals were against a large store and the idea was scrapped. 

Residents also oppose the 1,800 parking spaces that are planned as part of the development and want an outdoor play area for students of the school that will be built as part of the project; currently there are two rooftop terraces planned for play areas.

In addition to financial concerns, Extell needs a number of modifications to the 1992 agreement for the development, which was originally conceived as a site for a large office tower with television studios. These include transit permits for the garage space and zoning changes for the automobile showroom.

Securing these approvals will likely be a process of give and take, and Extell might have to give in to some local demands. Mel Wymore, chair of Community Board 7, which covers the Upper West Side, is pushing for 20 percent affordable housing throughout the project, an increase of the 12 percent in the 1992 agreement. Currently Extell is obliged to have approximately 264 of the planned 2,200 total apartment units as affordable units, but is allowed to convert them to market rate after 20 years.

Community Board 7 also wants a school large enough to accommodate six classes of kindergarten through 8th grade students, in order to ease the overcrowded local school district. The board also wants a sustainable, environmentally-friendly project.

“These same issues will be concerns for us,” said Jesse Bodine, director of constituent services for Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who will vote with the City Council in the fall and ultimately approve, reject or modify the project.

Community Board 7 will issue an advisory recommendation for the project by the first week of August. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office will also issue an opinion before the City Council votes.

The board will hold at least two more meetings during the next four weeks before issuing an opinion.