Extell’s controversial plan to cantilever a 1,424-foot skyscraper at 217 West 57th Street over the Art Students League, which won city approval last fall, will be abandoned if the League’s members reject the deal at a vote tonight, according to the developer. Extell has promised to walk away from the deal, which would net the League $31.8 million, and move forward without the cantilever, if the League does not reach an agreement by Wednesday night.
“If the ASL rejects the agreement, the $31 million is gone forever, for no good reason,” said a spokesman for the developer. “Extell is prepared to build without a cantilever.” The site, he added, was huge. Extell would just create a new plan without a cantilever.
Extell’s professed willingness to ditch a central element of the Smith + Gordon Gill-designed tower is somewhat surprising. During the fall, when Extell was seeking approval, it portrayed the cantilever as essential to the project’s moving forward, arguing that the cantilever was necessary to allow for expansive, column-free space needed by Nordstrom, which will occupy the first five floors of the tower. (Though a Nordstrom spokesman later downplayed the retailer’s need for the cantilever, telling The Observer that “ultimately, it was a design issue for the floors above us.”)
Additionally Extell subjected the tower to a somewhat punishing approval process that, but for the cantilever, could of been entirely avoided for the otherwise as-of-right project. (The Art Students League landmark status meant that the project had to come before the community board and subsequently gain approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.) At the time, the Art Students League voiced enthusiastic support for the project, a support that has not been reflected quite as enthusiastically by the League’s approximately 1,800 voting members, who are now dithering over whether or not to accept the deal.
At least two opposition groups have sprung up—ASL Unite and Don’t Step on Us—and members report that the Board of Control, which approved the conditional contract with Extell, is pushing the project hard, sending out flyers and plastering the school with “Get ready to vote ‘yes’ signage.” But artists, it appears, may be even more difficult to herd than cats.
For its part, ASL Unite, which held a special meeting last night to try to force a delay on the vote, says that they don’t oppose a cantilever outright, but feel that the decision has been rushed and that due diligence has not been done. Richard Caraballo, a representative for the opposition group, cited several areas of concern, significantly, that the firm who conducted the cantilever assessment for the League lists Extell as one of its clients on its website, and that there are few comparable projects to determine whether or not the League is being fairly compensated.
Additionally, he cited scenarios, which he says have not been investigated by the board, that could result in the League having to vacate the top floors of the building during construction of the Extell tower.
The board, however, claims that those concerns are unfounded. “The Board has retained leading experts including a structural engineer, legal counsel and two separate, independent appraisers (including a report last month) to insure that the members are getting the best price and best possible protections. Full, detailed information has been shared with membership through 15 public meetings and the distribution of extensive materials,” wrote Ira Goldberg, the League’s Executive Director, in a statement. “Whatever decision is made, Extell will build a tall tower next door. A ‘yes’ vote brings the League $31.8 million. Otherwise this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity vanishes.”
But some members don’t believe that is Extell is really prepared to walk away. One wrote that Extell “stands to gain an additional $700 million in sales by having the cantilever and would not walk away from the deal if members vote NO, but would go back to the bargaining table.”
Extell, however, says that it is. And clearly, the developer is eager to move forward with the project—NYimby reported last month that there was already significant excavation work being done at the site.