Community Board Spikes Durst’s BIG Pyramid Over Lack of Permanent Affordable Housing, Parking Problems

“My own feeling, and the feeling of board, is that we’d like this project to succeed,” J.D. Nolan, chair of

Looking sharp, but will it fly with the neighbors? (Durst Fetner)
Ms. Durst, baby bump hidden behind lectern. (Matt Chaban)

“My own feeling, and the feeling of board, is that we’d like this project to succeed,” J.D. Nolan, chair of Community Board 4’s land-use committee, told The Observer. “The Dursts are great developers, and they have worked very well with us in the past. Nevertheless, this is a rezoning, and the public should benefit as well as the developer.”

And so, the full board voted unanimously against Durst Fenter’s new apartment building on the far West Side last night. One of the most dynamic designs of the decade, 625 West 57th Street calls for a swooping white pyramid that rises dramatically up from the Hudson like an origami dove taking flight. Designed by Danish wunderkinds Bjarke Ingels Group (aka BIG), the project has even decided to eschew LEED ratings in its quest for singularity.

Still, this was not enough to sway the board, which generally seems to like the design but still has too many issues with the details surrounding it to approve the project at its monthly meeting. The board’s vote is merely provisional, though it will be given considerable consideration from officials down the line as they cast their vote for or against the project throughout the rest of the months-long public review process.

Last night, Helena Durst was in attendance to make her family’s case, as she has for the past decade as the project has struggled from one plan to another—data center, car dealership, for-profit school, hotel. She looked appropriately pregnant for the occasion, which was held on the second floor of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital (the maternity ward is on the seventh) on the corner of 11th Avenue and 59th Street, two blocks from where Ms. Durst hopes the 740-unit apartment building might soon rise.

“This is an asset for the skyline,” she said.

But not yet for the community, at least in its view. Their singular issue is affordable housing, of which there will be some 150 units. The sticking point is that those apartments will only be reserved for low-income tenants for 35 years. The board wants permanent affordability, instead. “As a community board, we are supposed to do the best we can to preserve and maintain our communities and keep them going,” Mr. Nolan said. “As we see our neighborhood changing, we see so much luxury housing going up, and we feel that is not contributing to the preservation of our neighborhood.”

The Dursts argue they cannot make the apartments permanently affordable because they do not own the site but have instead signed a 99-year land lease with a family that has owned the property for centuries. Now, there are some 150 different family members who have to be negotiated with, and any changes to the amount of affordable housing would require a renegotiation of the lease. Since the Dursts will not own the site in perpetuity, it is not clear the land’s owners would agree to a permanent affordable housing provision.

Still, Councilwoman Gale Brewer has also expressed concern about the permanence of the affordable apartments, and since she has the final say on the project, it could continue to be a serious issue.

Other concerns included the appearance of the building along 58th Street. Currently, all the retail is along 57th Street, with entrances, loading docks and mechanical systems on the 58th Street frontage. The board hopes those spaces can be rejiggered, with shops, trees, anything really to make the streetscape, which is nearly a block long, more appealing to pedestrians.

Parking is an issue in two ways. One, board members argued there were too many spaces for a project in the middle of Manhattan. Two, there is an issue with the access to that parking, through a two-way driveway that cuts through the middle of the site and connects to the Helena, a rental building also owned by Durst Fetner on the southeast corner of 10th Avenue and 57th Street. The board wants that space cut down to one lane, with a public plaza created out of the excess space this would free up. “Curb-side drop-off?” Mr. Nolan said. “What is this, Dubai?”

A small community facility building drew concerns because the Dursts have yet to find a use for the building, after a failed bid to have the Manhattan Children’s Museum move in. Now, they are looking at other childcare spaces, like day care or early education. Mr. Nolan thinks an art space could be good, too.

“This has always been a place for actors, artists, stagehands,” he said. “They need housing they can afford, they need places they can perform. Without them, it’s not the kind of New York I want to live in.”

To try and counter the local opposition to the project, Durst Fetner made a full political push last night, bringing out speakers and testimonials from the Community Preservation Corporation and Citizens Housing, Settlement Housing Fund and Planning Commission (on affordable housing); New York Building Congress, Regional Plan Association and the Partnership for New York City (on design and construction jobs); members of 32BJ (on service and operations jobs); and the Audubon Society (on how normal buildings have troubling bird strikes and this one will not).

Still, this show of support failed to sway the board to vote for the project.

“We hear their concerns and we will continue to work with them on a solution,” Jordan Barowitz, the Dursts’ director of external affairs, said after the disapproval vote. “That being said, I think is a very compelling project for the community and the city. It provides desperately needed market-rate housing and 150 affordable units for decades. And it’s an innovative and inspiring design. Great design makes for great places, which makes for a great community.”

Update: The story has been modified to clarify that the full community board disapproved of Durst Fetner’s building last night, not the land-use committee, though it also disapproved the plan at a meeting earlier in the summer. The story also misstated the location of the Helena. It is on the corner of 59th Street and 11th Avenue, not 10th Avenue. The Observer regrets the error.

Community Board Spikes Durst’s BIG Pyramid Over Lack of Permanent Affordable Housing, Parking Problems