Community Board Rejects Extell’s Plan to Cantilever Skyscraper Over Landmarked Art Students League

The community board decided that even at 291-feet up, a cantilever looming over a landmark is a cause for concern.

The community board decided that even at 291-feet up, a cantilever looming over a landmark is a cause for concern. (GripeBox)

Though they are amazingly popular with billionaires, Gary Barnett’s luxury developments are not always well-liked by the community, and at the Community Board 5 meeting Thursday night, his latest project met with widespread disapproval. After lengthy deliberation, the board voted to reject Extell’s request for a permit to cantilever a 1,550-foot super-skyscraper at 217 West 57th Street over the landmarked Students Art League next door.

Mr. Barnett himself appeared at the community Bbard meeting, in the company of a small army of consultants, lawyers and employees, to ask the board to approve the plans for what has been dubbed the Nordstrom Tower because the retailer plans to open its first New York department store in the tower’s base (a hotel and luxury condos will, of course, rise above).

“I know that there’s a big issue about the height and tall buildings being built around Central Park, but this is the wrong building to talk about that issue,” Mr. Barnett said, essentially asking the community board to divorce the cantilever from the rest of the skyscraper or the recent construction boom of super-skinny luxury towers along West 57th Street.

In this, he echoed the other Extell representatives and consultants who spoke, along with the executive director of the Art Students League, a representative from Nordstrom and Community Board 5′s landmarks committee, who recommended approving the cantilever, asserting that the feature would have no effect whatsoever on the landmark, being more than 200 feet above the ground. (Both Extell and Nordstrom claim that the retailer “needs” the cantilever to allow for expansive, column-free space on the first five floors of the tower.)

The majority of board members, however, disagreed, including Karen Pedrazzi, who had voted for the plan as a member of the landmarks committee, but reversed her stance on Thursday night, telling the crowd that “I don’t think Extell has been a good neighbor, it’s just taken me this long to wake up.”

Just days earlier, a crane malfunction at One57, Extell’s luxury condo tower at 157 West 57th Street, shut down the block for some four hours as construction workers struggled to return an unbalanced 13,500-pound counterweight to the ground. For many on the street it was an unpleasant reminder of Hurricane Sandy, when the skyscraper’s broken crane  forced a week-long evacuation. Indeed, a number of community board members cited the safety of not only the Student Arts League, but the entire neighborhood given the crane-related incidents, evacuations and street shutdowns that have been caused by the construction of the 1,005-foot One57.

Others complained of Extell’s unforthcomingness in regards to the project. Indeed, renderings of the cantilever released by the developer show only the base of the tower, rather than the entire structure—perhaps an attempt to reinforce the separation between the cantilever, which requires community board approval, and the rest of the tower, which does not.

“We keep being asked to approve these small items without ever getting the bigger picture,” said board member Ina Clark. “This is 50 percent taller than One57, the building that’s freaking us out with crane incidents. And we don’t know anything about the sky, the traffic, the shadow, how it’s going to affect everyone in Central Park.”

The question is just how much influence the community board’s denial of the special permit will have on the high-rise. As the project’s defenders reminded the crowd time and time again, the tower is being built as-of-right, with a lot merger and air rights purchases allowing for the building’s incredible height regardless of community board approval. The only reason the developer needed to come before the community biard at all is because it wants to cantilever over a landmarked building. Moreover, the final decision on the cantilever will be left to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and it’s unclear how heavily the LPC will weigh the community board’s decision.

Whether or not the community board’s stand will be able to win any real concessions from Extell, let alone a new non-cantilevering design from architects Smith + Gorden Gill Architecture LLP, remains to be seen. Extell’s thoughts on the issue are similarly opaque: Donna Gargano, a senior vice presdient of development, refused comment after the vote.